Reading Fast and Slow

My background is in the classics; my degree as an undergraduate was in Greek and Latin. We had to read texts line by line at a snail’s pace, looking up every word so it seemed, scanning poetry, investigating unusual grammatical points, or textual cruxes, or philological articles about diction and cultural meaning.

My graduate background was similarly textually focused. I read almost exclusively poetry, taught myself old French and Middle English, again at a snail’s pace. I ended up with the texts of Shakespeare, which (apologies to the theater people out there) are best experienced on the page, and read carefully and closely, again at a decelerated pace.

I was influenced by lots of literary theory that favored such deceleration of reading, such hovering over the text.

The drawback however is that I can’t read novels, not at all. I am a page dweller and can’t turn the pages fast enough to get through. This fact is a great source of embarrassment because I ended up becoming a literature professor, yet could count the number of novels I had read on one and a half hands. Sigh.

I’d like to know how others tend to read — are you a speed reader, or do you take the slow route as I do? Whichever way you answer, I’d also like to know: is this a learned tendency, or have you always read this way? And how does this affect the works you choose to read?

13 Responses

  1. Slow ReaderI have to admit
    Slow Reader

    I have to admit that I’m a very slow reader. I wish I could read fast and therefore get more books read. My problem is that I get distracted very easily and my eyes scan the page but then at the end of the page I realize I can’t remember a single thing I’ve read because I’ve been daydreaming. Very frustrating. If I read first thing in the morning, I have a better retention rate so I now set aside 2 hours each morning before work to read. I try not to let my slow reading affect which books I chose to read but I know not to take a very long book out from the library because I won’t get it finished before I have to return it.

  2. PacePace is always an issue

    Pace is always an issue for me. I can read really fast, but sometimes I read so fast I’m not sure I’m even reading. I can also go into daydream mode while I’m reading, which can make a single page last about two hours. All I know is, every once in a while that rare book comes around that defines its own pace — I read it at the speed it demands, because it’s good enough to shut out the outside world and shut up my subconscious thoughts. I find a book like that maybe once every couple of months.

  3. Page Turners PreferredIn my
    Page Turners Preferred

    In my apartment, I have half a dozen books I must read that are terribly written. It sucks. Also, they were expensive.

    My second Chinese textbook is all in characters and the slow pace of learning fails to excite me.

    A slow paced book is OK, e.g., my favorite Catch-22 but I like faster moving books. The last book I read like that was Thoreaux’s O-Zone.

    Writers who bore their readers — am I doing that here? — should give it up. If it bores me, I don’t read it unless it is absolutely necessary. Less is more and fast is best.

  4. MoodI think pace is an

    I think pace is an enormous factor in the enjoyment of a book. I’ll finish a 600 page book in a few days, and then read a 200 pager in a month. The flow of the book helps to speed things along, and a bad book can really become a chore, as I hate not finishing books. But the speed of a book affects the way I feel about it. When I read a book a chapter at a time on trains, I usually finish a book thinking it was average. When I take a Saturday afternoon, sit down and plunge myself into a story, I usually rate it much higher.

    And this all ties into an article I read in the NYTBR a while back about VS Naipaul, which I tremendously agreed with. He was interviewed and said something like: This will be my last book. People can’t invest the time it would take to enjoy a good book any more. (On a side note, I’ve never read one of his books, though I’ve wanted to.) This immediately brought forth a picture in my mind of a train packed with people afraid to speak to each other, everyone listening to their i-pods and reading a book in which the texture of the cover looks more interesting than the content within. I also remembered reading somewhere that people used to stand up and read, using a podium-type stand. Imagine cranking through Les Miserables standing up! I’ll bet it’s great.

  5. It dependsIn many ways, the
    It depends

    In many ways, the work involved in getting my degree ruined me for normal reading, at least for awhile. I resented the fact that I couldn’t just enjoy a book anymore. Whether prose or poetry, I was always looking at the way it was constructed, at the words used, thinking of potential meanings beyond the one that was readily available at the surface, and picking apart paragraphs, sentences, lines. Personally, it took a lot of the pleasure out of reading, because I couldn’t just enjoy something, I had to unlock it, break it, rearrange it, figure it out like it was a mystery. Close reading is a skill that is good to have, and I’m glad I was taught how to do it, because maybe I’ll go back to the academic world someday and I’ll need it. But it also got kind of irritating, not being able to read a book and simply enjoy the story, so I’ve been working on unlearning that skill. Because if I never do go back to the academic world (which is most likely), it’s not really going to serve me all that well. And before I was taught how to read slowly and be on the lookout for all these signposts of meaning, I read quickly and voraciously. I miss that and I’m working on getting it back.

  6. slow and shortI read slowly
    slow and short

    I read slowly also. I’ve tried to read fast, but I tend to slow down and savor words, reread bits, and explore the images conjured up in my imagination by the text.

    A few years back I set a goal to read one novel per week. My lifestyle doesn’t really permit that pace for too many weeks. Now I’m lucky if I make it through a novel per month.

    I am more willing to commit to a short novel (a 100 pages or so) than a longer work. I like to preview novels by getting the audio book from the library and listening to it before I commit to the time on the couch.

    Lately, I’ve been reading more short fiction. I worry about ignoring longer work simply because they are long. I’ve probably read the first half of more novels than I have finished (sad to say) and dislike adding to that number of aborted texts.

  7. How I ReadMy tendency is to
    How I Read

    My tendency is to read several books at a time, so the pace of my reading of individual books is determined by how many others I’m reading. Just occasionally I will become engrossed in one book and read it to the exclusion of the rest, however, and when that happens (it is rare), I read extremely quickly and obsessively.I think this reading habit is the product of an undisciplined but curious mind; certainly you would never be taught to spread your attentions so thin!

    Mostly I read poetry and poetry criticism. I don’t know if the same reading patterns would be possible with multiple novels.

  8. Struggling latelyI used to
    Struggling lately

    I used to struggle with poetry and breeze through prose. Now the opposite is true, and I don’t know quite how the paradigm shifted. For the past three or so months I have found myself unable to finish an entire novel no matter the style, quality or subject matter. The problem is obviously psychological. Instead of struggling along with prose, I have decided to stick with poetry until the situation (I hope) resolves itself. Like most of the others have stated, when I do read prose, my speed is variable. A good book doesn’t always equate to a fast read.

  9. Pleasure Books v. School
    Pleasure Books v. School Books

    My brain turns on me when I need to do assigned reading. It tells me “hey, couldn’t you be doing something non-constructive instead of reading that novel for college?” Even if it’s not just something like Economics, but something like Dharma Bums.

    I usually get lured by my brain.
    If it’s a for-pleasure book, I read pretty fast, probably because I want to read it, or know I will not be graded for reading it.
    When I actually get around to reading some assigned reading, I usually have to read it twice, to fully understand it. It’s like when I read something at first, I just scan it. If I read it a second time, my brain decides to process it. Weird, eh?

  10. tempoi’m a rather fast reader

    i’m a rather fast reader most of the time. i tend to finish books within a single night if they really grab me.

    i read fast, but sometimes the race is interrupted and my thoughts drift away. it’s like switching into another mode – from speeding to floating, from grasping to dreaming, from a state of receptiveness to a state of suspense. daydream mode – set off by a a sentence, an expression, a word or image that causes a certain asscociation or mood.

    so i can race through a hundred pages in half an hour – and then dwell on a single page for another hour or longer…. until i deliberately switch back and continue reading.

    occasionally, there are books that are different. i still read fast, but i’m not speeding through them – instead, i seem to be able to read in the rhythm of their voice, or to absorb their pace and tempo into mine.

    i’m not quite sure how this works or what exactly is different with these books… i just know that they are rare to find.

  11. read/ready/reason/riddle/rate

    I suppose I read at a rate that is more or less commensurate with the rhythm of speech, taking into account the pauses, breaks, and interjections in which I combine myself to the text; and of course, it occasionally happens that I find myself in an antagonistic conversation, and the book and I trade insults and arguments, spitting in each other’s faces. However, when I’m with a novel the case is usually different, and I feel I’m with an old friend who has been years away from me, and I’m happy just to listen to their voice as much as anything. When reading novels it’s the voice I prize; I usually read the first few pages out-loud, trying to get a feel for it. But with poems I’m rather more primed for an argument. I feel that poetry is debate, rhetoric, a series of assertions as to what the world is and how it should be; I used to believe that poetry could simply be a form of “higher conversation”, but since then I’ve come to realize that in the case of poetry we are only “conversing” with ourselves… and hence the danger. Because after all, we never really talk to ourselves, but rather we repeat assertions, theories, lusts and fears…

    Maybe the truth of the matter is that I simply have old Bloom’s assertion knocking about in my skull: In poetry, “–we can only read ourselves.”

    ((Cue Johnny Cash singing,
    “The Beast In Me.”))

    Oh, but as for the speed at which I move through a novel; that is relatively very slow, because I tend to live in a book for months at a time, reading it only when I mean to get away from myself into something else. I’ve been in Augie March for a month or more.

    But I hardly see why we should try to exhaust our friends and their conversation in a single evening?

  12. I have the same problemI
    I have the same problem

    I thought I was the only one who suffered from too much close analysis. I had to relearn who to read when I started editing for a book publisher, and found myself suddenly reading novels too.

    Too much Joyce, New Critical appproach, etc.

    It helps, I think, to remember Ezra Pound’s advice, and I paraphrase: “It’s better to play through a single great volume from Bach a dozen times than through dozens of volumes of lesser composers. Neither Shakespeare, with his handful of books, nor Chaucer, with even less, could hardly be considered to be illiterate.”

  13. Reading to the speed of the
    Reading to the speed of the work

    In English, my native language, I sort of read to the rhytm of the work. If it is Poetry or something very poetic, I usually re-reaed it many times to savor it, to inderstand it, to seek feelings from the writing.

    In Japanese and Chinese, i read very slowly (a problem with roadsigns in Tokyo), but it is a very satisfying feeling to gain understanding with the characters, and to feel the history the characters represent while absorbing the writing and culture.

    I suppose, if you are absorbing the books so thoroughly, it must be extremely painful for you to read something poorly written.

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