Friday, 11 January 2013

Speed Readers and Slowpokes - Cathy Butler


Many of my friends are book people – writers, readers, teachers. I think of myself as a book person too, most of the time. After all, I’ve written a few, and I get paid to teach people about others. I'm even occasionally invited to come and talk about books, as I will be doing in exactly a week’s time, when (shameless plug) I take part in a tribute to the wonderful New Zealand writer, Margaret Mahy (1936-2012) in Cambridge. But at the back of it all there’s this dreadful feeling.

What if they find out I’m a fraud?

It’s worst around New Year. That’s the time when many book-bloggish friends like to list all the books they’ve read over the previous 52 weeks. Many have read a hundred books, or two hundred, or four hundred…

If I were to post such a list, it would contain maybe twenty-five books. Thirty at a pinch.

Now, that’s not the entirety of my reading, because I also read student essays, critical articles, newspapers and indeed blogs such as An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.  But then, my friends also read other things. Even being as generous to myself as I reasonably can, by my rough calculation I read less than half what many of my friends do.

I realise of course that many people read far less even than that, but mostly they don’t try to pass themselves off as professional book people. No such excuse for me.

It’s not because I’m off doing other things, either. I’m not studying car maintenance, or working with the homeless, or indulging in another bracing evening’s parkour. It’s simply that I’m a slow reader. Not dyslexic, just slow. Or rather, I’m not a fast reader. I’d rather put it that way round, because I think my reading speed is the normal and natural one. When I read a page silently, I do it slightly (but not much) faster than I would if I were reading out loud. That’s the speed Aristotle read at, and St Paul, and Virgil, and if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me.

Okay, I can’t be sure about that last bit, but there’s some – admittedly ambiguous – evidence that the usual way of reading in the ancient world was to mutter the words to oneself as one read, which must have put a natural limit on reading speed. (We can surmise this because when people were seen reading without moving their lips it was thought unusual enough to be worth mentioning, as St Augustine did of St Ambrose.)

So, when I read at the speed of speech (or just a bit faster) I’m not being odd, at least within a historical context. But I still envy my friends the ability to get through a book in a day that would take me a week to finish. I’d like to be able to say that they aren’t really absorbing it – that the windmills of my mind may grind words slowly but that they grind exceeding small, whereas my friends are not speeding but skimming. And it’s true that I remember what I’ve read pretty well; but then so do many of my speed-reading buddies – at least, in terms of characters and plot.

I’m still suspicious of their new-fangled minds, however. They may read adequately in terms of comprehension, but at double the speed do they really have time to take in the music of the language? To enjoy its taste, timbre and rhythm ? Isn’t it like playing an LP record at 78rpm; or bolting a meal at Le Gavroche in twenty minutes, or speeding up Gone with the Wind to get through it in less than two hours? (Actually, that last one sounds quite a good idea.) Do they read poetry at the same frantic rate? And if not, why whip prose along in this wild career?

I am forced to conclude with this salvo of rhetorical questions because I honestly don’t know the answer, never having read at speed myself.

But I bet there are ABBA readers who can tell me.

15 comments:

Stroppy Author said...

I'm with you on this, Cathy. I *can* speed read, but I don't like to so I usually don't. I enjoy books more if I read them slowly. And I love the idea of reading at the speed of Aristotle - that's a great defence! (As if we needed to defend a choice that harms no one...)

And thank you for the plug - I'll try to get to your talk, too. It's only two miles down the road, and I go to quite a few of the Homerton events. It's good for them to know there is a children's writer in the room, rather than always talking behind our backs!

Catherine Butler said...

You're right, it doesn't need a defence - but it's hard not to feel inadequate, sometimes, amongst all those book-bustin' speed readers.

I do hope you can make it to Homerton, Stroppy. It would be lovely to see you!

Keren David said...

I wonder why speed is so valued - it certainly makes life difficult for kids with processing difficulties when schools equate quick with clever. Don't apologise for your thoughtful, thorough approach - I am a speedreader and I quite often feel as though I'm missing a lot as I hurtle through a book.

Joan Lennon said...

A side note, but I read more slowly and carefully on my Kindle. I think it may be because my eyes don't have the option of whipping over to the opposite page the way they like to do with a paper book.

Love the Aristotle defence!

bookwitch said...

I'm married to a speed reader. It's very annoying. I read more slowly in my old age, and I like it. I feel I notice what's on the page, and I can even find things to criticise. : )

Jenni said...

I'm what you would call a 'speed reader' I guess but it's not something I do by choice-where you read naturally slowly I read naturally quickly. It's never been an issue for me to not understand what I'm reading because it's not that I'm skimming the words, I'm just reading them at a quicker speed. The only time it trips me up is when I'm tired because then my eyes move much faster than my brain and I realise I'm looking at the end of a sentence with no idea what the words in the rest of it were. Most of the time though it doesn't stop me appreciating a beautiful sentence or story though!

Sue Purkiss said...

Like Jenni, I read fast naturally. It's handy in a lot of ways, but I certainly don't remember books as well as my husband who reads much more slowly, and I do find that's a drawback.

Katherine Langrish said...

I'm a speed reader, but I'd agree with Sue Purkiss - I don't always retain what I read as well as my husband, particularly non-fiction. On the other hand, I often re-read books too, multiple times over the years, so the ones I love really do stick with me. (I'm sure you re-read too.) Nothing wrong with either way - and as we all know, 'slow and steady often wins the race'.

weavingsandunpickings said...

I have this too, and as a professional Classicist feel a similar sense of shame about it. OK, so I mainly work with cities, not texts, but I still feel I ought to be able to read books and articles about them quicker than I do - and my rate of leisure reading makes yours look epic.

Like you and some of your commenters, I cling to the hope that I am getting greater value out of what I do read, and sometimes I can actively feel that what's holding me back is an obsessive parsing of the nuances of each sentence, the possible relation of what's just been said to other parts of the text and its wider allusions. But as you say, speed-readers seem to be able to pick up on that stuff too.

Ms. Yingling said...

I'm a speed reader, because it's the only way I know to read a huge number of books so that I can tell my students what they are about. My blog is my auxiliary memory, because I forget a lot, but I can usually retain a one sentence description. I don't get a chance to enjoy the quality as much as I would like, although I do notice it. I sometimes feel bad about rushing through things, but it does help when it comes to pairing up students with books!

Penny Dolan said...

Great post, and something to be proud about imo. My daughter is a "slow" reader and in many ways I envy her. I'm sure I'd remember far more if I didn't gobble the books.

If many professional readers & librarians (like Ms. Yingling) must use speeed reading, does this approach to language influence the kind of writing and type of books most "celebrated"? Pacy mode rather than reflective mode for example? Short rather than long?

Alexia Casale said...

Being a slow reader is one of the few things I outright hate about being dyslexic (which is usually more of a mix of curse and blessing, fairly evenly divided between the two, as far as I'm concerned). I love books and wish I had time to read more of them... or to be a faster reader so I could pack more into the significant amount of time I spend reading. My plan to compensate for being a slow reader is to be immortal, then I can read All The Books, and it won't matter that I have to do so rather slowly. I suppose the other thing that would help would be to narrow down my areas of interest, but the problem with that is that I'm legitimately interested in a huge range of genres. And I wouldn't really want to change that, so I just bumble along, reading as much as I can and wishing I'd read more. But, since I think this is a good way to live, I can't really complain. Just imagine - I could be one of those poor souls who think they hate books.

Catherine Butler said...

Thanks all for your comments. Perhaps the ideal is to have a number of speed settings for different kinds of reading. Fast, if you're reading for information; slow, if you want to roll the language round your mouth like a Grand Cru; and somewhere in between for ordinary reading pleasure. I don't know that one can decide in an advance which is appropriate, mind.

I too would be interested to know whether fast and slow readers tend to divide in terms of their preferences for long/short and leisurely/pacy books.

Ven n/a said...

As a fast reader sometimes my book habit feels like a beast that needs feeding. There can never be too many books in the to read pile and I get anxious when that pile gets low. I do own a lot of books that I constantly reread but sometimes the book hunger wants new words.

I absolutely love it when I have dense texts to devour. The Baroque Cycle, for example took me a good two weeks to read and it was glorious. I've already mentioned on Facebook that these days I like to slow myself down by taking the time to reflect on what I'm reading. However I read page turning thrillers at full speed. Something like a Sophie Hannah or Denise Mina where I'm equally invested in the solution to the mystery and the emotional repercussions on the characters puts me at full throttle.

I don't actually know how fast I read, clock watching is too distracting. I agree whole heartedly that it is not a competitive sport.

When I read I can become so immersed that I become oblivious to the world around me. I've missed bus stops because of this, I miss people talking to me. On a train I once missed the drama of one of my friend's children knocking out the tooth of the other one (it was a baby tooth and, yes, Mum was there). Is it the same for some of you slower readers? Or do you have attention to spare?

adele said...

To quote the great Doctor Seuss "Some are fast and some are slow/some are high and some are low." etc.
I'm very fast...my dad never believed that I'd read the books I said I had and used to test me on things!
Wish I could come to your talk but alas busy that day. Good luck.