Read Like You Water a Plant: Slowly

February 5, 2024 · Words by William Dib
"Water" your mind at the right rate
Illustration by William Dib

I don't know about you, but I love books. I love looking at them, buying them, organising them, touching them, and flipping through their pages at random. If the book is new, when no one is looking, I gently split it open and bury my head in the middle. I love that new-book smell.

Of course, I love reading books, too. But I have this problem:

What I think my book-reading deficit looks like
Illustration by William Dib

Actually, let me be more honest:

What my book-reading deficit actually looks like
Illustration by William Dib

In the beginning, the discrepancy, i.e. my book-reading deficit, isn't a serious issue. However, as the years roll by, this deficit, much like its government counterpart, starts to get (seriously) out of hand.

One day, I contemplated a perhaps inescapable truth:

I will not be able to read every book I want to read

This wasn't such a groundbreaking realisation. I knew it from other areas of life; I knew that I couldn't learn all the music, visit all the places, or know all the things. There is just not enough time. Was I ready to accept such an obvious conclusion? Of course not. For one reason or another, reading is where I drew the line. And the engineer in me screamed: "We can find a way!"

And a way we set out to find.

The engineer's solution

My inner engineer had a solution ready:

Increase the speed of reading such that it matches, or better, exceeds, the rate at which books were added to the to-read list [1].

Simple, right?

Yes, simple. But it didn't work. It failed miserably. Have you ever tried to read fast? It's like eating fast: your stomach gets upset and you don't absorb all the nutrition from the food. In my case, my head span and I understood (or retained) nothing of what I was reading.

Clearly this wasn't the way.

My plants are difficult

I have moody plants at home. Each has its own water needs, in quantity and frequency. Some are happy with a mist, others need a bucket. Some like receiving their water from the top, others from the bottom. Most times, I'm patient and accommodating. I am, after all, their owner [2].

After years of caring for my plants, and of stressing over my book-reading fulfilment (or lack thereof), another inescapable truth hit me as I slowly watered the pothos above my piano one day. I thought to myself:

Why can't I just dump the water and get it over with?

Don't just dump "water" on your mind
Illustration by William Dib

I wasn't as patient as usual that day. But the question was rhetorical nonetheless. I knew the answer: if you thoughtlessly dump water on a thirsty plant, the water would go straight down to the bottom of the pot – and hardly any water would be retained by the plant. The result: the plant wouldn't be happy and, presumably, neither would you.

Our brains are like plants

There are many reasons I despise the "productivity movement", but chief among them is the treatment of the human brain [3] like a metal car gear monotonously grinding away at a speed that is never high enough. Those "productivity gurus" might suggest reading a fixed number of pages per day until your mission is accomplished. What they conveniently fail to mention is that not only are all pages of a book not of equal difficulty, but your daily capacity to read and process information is also not consistent.

Moreover, there are those who read and summarise books in brief pages, or even paragraphs, and sell those "condensed summaries" to others so that the entire ordeal could be avoided in the first place. This is the intellectual equivalent of reducing a nutritious meal made from scratch with fresh ingredients at home into a frozen, drab, grab-and-go monstrosity at the supermarket, with just about the same level of nutrition and appeal.

Our brains are not car gears. And fast-food nutrition, literal or intellectual, is harmful. Our brains are more like plants; they need nutrients, friendly conditions, and loving care. They do the rest on their own. Treat your brain well and it'll do the rest on its own, too. Or abuse it at your own peril.

The choice is yours.

Read slowly

In one interview with well-known Kuwaiti political scientist, Abdullah Al-Nafisi, the interviewer inquired, in the interest of obtaining practical advice, how an ordinary person should approach the practice of reading. I almost fell to the floor. I hadn't expected to be ambushed like that (on YouTube of all places) with a potential solution to my years-long quandary.

The response was [4]:

One ought not to approach reading quantitatively, but qualitatively. And not in a mechanical manner either...but rather a dynamic one. It suffices to read 4 or 3 or even 2 pages from a book, but manage those pages well. Absorb the information in them [before you go back for more].

Today, I read books the same way that I savour an expensive chocolate or I water my moody plants: slowly. Some days, my appetite is bigger and I read more. Other days, I'm not able to go beyond a couple of pages. Both are okay [5]. What's important is consistency and qualitative, not quantitative, reading.

Will this allow me to read all the books? No, it won't, but it will allow me to absorb more of them. And that, I realised, was the point. Counterintuitively, I find the more meaningfully I engage with books, the faster I tend to read them. If you're patient enough to train the muscle of your brain, at some point, it starts to pay you dividends.

So next time someone tries to sell you on reading some abridged, watered-down version of a book, just smile and nod. And go home and read the original. But this time, do it slowly.


  1. The opposite solution, i.e. that of reducing the rate at which books were added to my to-read list, was readily dismissed. I'm not that boring. ↩︎
  2. Or, as some would say, their parent, but such a designation makes me roll my eyes. ↩︎
  3. Not just the human brain, but the whole human, too. ↩︎
  4. Translated from Arabic by yours truly ↩︎
  5. And, to satisfy the engineers among you, the overall average, in the end, will be respectable. ↩︎