How Important Is Reading Speed?

Woman lying with book on face

As a child, I read like a chain-smoker, starting another book the second I finished the first. Everyone always told me what a wonderful reader I was. No one ever told me that I was also really slow.

At university, I merrily cobbled together reading-intensive classes in Literature, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion. Experienced students warned me to reconsider, but I thought I could handle the course load. I adored stories and ideas. I loved immersing myself in different voices. What could be so difficult?

Mess of books

The answer, in short, was time. In one week, I was expected to read Othello, Ulysses, Being and Nothingness, The Epic of Gilgamesh…then write essays in response!

I’d seen high school classmates survive on a steady diet of CliffsNotes, those yellow-covered guides replacing actual texts. The first time I picked one up in college, I bought it in a bookstore on the other side of town and hid it in my backpack like a teenage boy with porn. I felt shame, but also a curious mixture of excitement and relief.

Girl with backpack

The guide was on Plato, which was a pity, as I was genuinely interested in Plato. I would have liked to mull over the content, but the rate at which I was supposed to read meant nothing had time to sink in. CliffsNotes plugged the gaps in my comprehension.

Come Second Semester, I made wiser choices – there was more looking at slides and photographs, more watching videos and listening.

There was far less reading.

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I fell in love with my husband, in part, because he was passionate about books. I used to wonder how he fit so many in, given he worked in engineering. But then I watched him read.

He’d pick something off the shelf after dinner, and by the time we went to bed, he’d be nearly finished. I’d accuse him of skimming and test him, only to find he could speak about plots and characters at length. Meanwhile, I’d struggle to write a synopsis of a novel I’d just finished.

Heart over book

To this day, my husband remembers everything about books he read at 15, 22, or 36, while even mysteries surprise me if I revisit them. However, I have incredible recall for literary experiences. I can pick up an individual novel and tell you that I read it sitting on a bench beside the Pont Neuf, wearing a red minidress and drinking Orangina when I was supposed to be catching a train.

I read for pleasure, and my senses remember.

*

I grew up reading mostly classics, so I never realized that the book industry has trends until I started WordMothers. Suddenly, I became aware of the existence of “It” books and I’ve been feeling pressured to read in a timely fashion ever since, not for fear of missing the content of a book—after all, the text will still be there in 12 months’ time—but for fear of being left out of the conversation around it. This is even more of an issue when I’m writing a review.

Speed

Consequently, I’ve been looking into ways to increase my reading speed and I’ve learned that there’s actually a reason I read as slowly as I do. It’s called subvocalization—or auditory reassurance.

When I read, I hear the words in my head. It’s as simple as that. This is what we’re taught to do as children, and I had no idea that most people outgrow the habit.

Headphones

Skimming and scanning are speed-reading techniques I’m more familiar with. I know how to grab the important bits from a school note or a medical journal whilst ignoring “filler”. To some extent, I can actually thank my disability for this as being neurologically impaired taught me ways to grasp information when I’m lacking the visual or mental focus to savor every word. But it’s not a visceral reading, and I don’t find it as meaningful.

*

I like reading slowly. I love not just stories but sounds. When I read, I enjoy the way individual words fit together and the rhythms they make in my head. Maybe this is because I’m a poet; maybe it’s a vestige from studying multiple languages. It could just be an editor thing. All I know is there’s something missing for me when I focus on reading quickly.

Woman with headphones near window

Modern day living places significant emphasis on rushing through things to get to the other side. Technology, in particular, encourages us to move faster, to do whatever we can to increase our processing speeds as if we are machines ourselves.

As a writer, I appreciate the commercial benefit of people consuming literature at faster rates. Certainly, this increases book sales! But as a reader—indeed, as a human being—I’m not worried about my reading speed.

Dangling feet

There’s an entire culture rebelling against the frenzy and clutter of contemporary lifestyles. Minimalism has taken off, and the Slow movement keeps sub-dividing. We have Slow foods, Slow travel…why not Slow reading?

Where is the value in getting through a good book faster, just for the sake of finishing?

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