Stephen King and the art of the slow read

Among the writers whose books merit the appellation “page turner,” Stephen King ranks high on the short list. After all, millions of loyal readers have been enjoying his books for decades now. He remains a master storyteller who continually demonstrates his growth as a writer.

I’m a Stephen King fan, but not necessarily one of his “Constant Readers.” In fact, since discovering his early works during college and law school (starting with Salem’s Lot, which scared the hell out of me), I’ve gone through lengthy stretches of years when I didn’t pick up a King novel. In recent years, however, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of his books, and I anticipate that his work will be a regular presence in my reading rotation.

During my current incarnation as a King reader, I have moved away from devouring one of his books in a short period of time. Rather, especially for his longer novels, I take my time, usually several weeks.

With that practice of slow reading has come a revelation: Stephen King is a brilliant writer because his stories stay with you over a long stretch of reading time. You get emotionally invested in the plot and the characters, to the point where you can pick up the story a week later and be right back in its world.

Those of you who are avid readers may know the opposite experience. You begin a book that seems promising, but then life intrudes and you put it down for a few days or a week. When you try to pick it up again, even the major characters seem foggy to you, or maybe the developing story simply isn’t all that compelling.

By contrast, I just finished a slow read of Pet Sematary (1983), and oh my, is it good. This is one of his scariest and most emotionally wrought stories, a family-based tale that plumbs the depths of death and loss. For some reason Pet Sematary escaped my attention when it first appeared, but I know that I appreciate its richness more today.

A couple of years ago, I read King’s superb novel built around the Kennedy Assassination, 11/22/63 (2012), in the same fashion. (I took over a month to finish it.) Framed by a time travel device, the story spans several years. Reading the book slowly actually helped me to “experience” that passage of time.

On Facebook I have had exchanges with friends on the question of who is our generation’s Charles Dickens, and King’s name comes up quickly and enthusiastically. Dickens’s stories also had a slow read quality to them, in his case by design or necessity, as many of his works were serialized in weekly and monthly magazine installments. His plots and characters had to be sufficiently memorable in order to maintain the interest of readers over the longer haul.

Stephen King’s work is much more than a generational passing fancy. Like that of Dickens, people will be reading his stuff for many decades to come. May I suggest that doing so slowly is a great way to appreciate his great talent?

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