Monday, 29 March 2010

Reading: Speedy or Creepy?

I'm a creepy reader. By which I mean that I'm slow. In fact, I was so slow even to learn to read in the first place, that I needed special help at school to keep up with my comrades. My eye crawls across the page at a very sedate pace, caterpillaring from one word to the next while my mind booms them out loud between my ears, and I often wonder if I should be worried about this. Not that there's much I could do about it.

I have tried to develop the knack of speed-reading, but I can't. If I try to switch off the voice of my inner-reader and take in the meaning of the words direct -- or parcels of words as I'm told speed-readers do -- I lose the sense of the writing very quickly. My mind wanders and I usually end up at the bottom of one of those white channels that open up in text bodies like well shafts in cross-section. Some of you might not even know what I'm talking about when I refer to these. I mean the snaking white spaces that form at random across the page, joining the spaces between words in one line with those of the next and the next, and so on. They are the first thing I see when I open a book, and I take this as a sign of being visually-minded.

Speed-reading, I'm told, involves taking in a sentence at a time, registering its complete meaning, and then moving on to absorb the next. So not a caterpillar nibbling each leaf, but a goat demolishing the whole bush, one twig at a time. It's very impressive -- I know people who read incredibly quickly and I've always envied them. My own mother, apart from being amazing in a general sense and nothing like a goat specifically, is a natural speed-reader and can read a novel a day. Typically, it would take me a week to get through the same book. My mother could read a stack of stuff in that time, but I often wonder who gets the best experience of the writing.

I'm very preoccupied with the sound of words when I read and write, and some part of my brain can't help but 'count' the stressed and unstressed notes that characterise English. This is the music of our language. Can speed-readers appreciate this as they stride through the text? I really don't see how they can, but perhaps it doesn't matter, especially since the meaning of the words has nothing to do with the sounds and shapes they make. Or has it? Perhaps Dylan Thomas meant more than we might suppose when he chose the words of his musical lines. Could poetry be speed-reader proof? I'm asking these questions because I don't know.

I'm not trying to criticise speedy readers (put the phone down, Mum), I am, I suppose, just trying to reassure myself that it's okay to read as I do. And perhaps, for a writer, it's preferable. Can a novelist be complete without being a stylist to some extent? Or would writers be better off concentrating on meaning alone, leaving off the curly bits? I would love to hear your views on this, especially if you are a speed-reader who doesn't slow up for poetry. Can you read a novel a day? And are there any other creeps out there?


  1. Actually, I think slow readers generally get the better deal. It's a bit like appreciating your food by chewing every mouthful, or allowing chocolate to melt slowly on the tongue rather than gobbling it. It's impossible to appreciate poetry at speed, and very hard I find, given my goatish propensity to devour things a paragraph at a time, to slow down and savour the individual words. So carry on being as creepy as you like, Thomas, in this partiular case its nothing to be ashamed of!

  2. Actually, I think slow readers generally get the better deal. It's a bit like appreciating your food by chewing every mouthful, or allowing chocolate to melt slowly on the tongue rather than gobbling it. It's impossible to appreciate poetry at speed, and very hard I find, given my goatish propensity to devour things a paragraph at a time, to slow down and savour the individual words. So carry on being as creepy as you like, Thomas, in this particular case its nothing to be ashamed of!

    29 March 2010 14:30

  3. Thanks, Mum. And you were so lightening quick, you commented twice:)

  4. Thomas,

    If you're bored reading my WIP why don't you just say so? Just kidding.

    I do know what you mean. I find the speed I read at depends very much on the book. Some times I plod because I'm not really engrossed. Sometimes 100 pages goes by in the blink of eye. I don't think I ever "speed read" though. And, I'm sure your approach is beneficial to you as a writer.

  5. Fascinating. I was pretty slow off the mark as a child. Maybe it's a boy thing - my sister was a super-dooper speedy book devourer and I was adrift in her literary wake as she steamed ahead. I was intimidated by books as I found reading really hard. But it's the tortoise and the hare isn't it? slow but sure wins the day. I like to think that slow readers do it out of respect (for the written word) not stupidity... So I guess I'm a (ugh!) "creep". I think there may also be something visual about slow readers too - some readers don't learn phonetically (I didn't/couldn't/wouldn't)and they learn from the shape of words and letters and make associations. I think the shape of words on a page (and this is then confused by different fonts) can make a huge difference. But I also suspect that artists (that's you and I Thomas) don't just absorb the info and allow filmic images to rush through the brain. We stop and illustrate it in our brains as we go. No wonder I'm all done in after re-reading Wuthering Heights! There's so much to imagine! It's exhausting. I'm not saying others don't have a degree of this. We all imagine what characters look like in non-illustrated books. But does everyone imagine hair, make up, lighting, clothes, angle viewed from, facial expression, composition of location, best materials to capture scene, worry about techniques and consider textures? Does everyone lie awake wondering how to interpret? Or is it just (would be and working) artists? Then again... perhaps I'm just a "creep" !

  6. Ha, Simon. But now you know why I take so long getting back to you.

    James, it's great to hear another visual artist's perspective. Yes, I spend a lot of time on the pictures too, and I get especially hung up on following people around as they walk from room to room. Thanks for commenting.

  7. I'm a speedy reader - quantity vs. quality. I love the breadth of stuff I can get through, but what I really hate is not being able to remember the itty bitty details...usually numbers.

    You know, there I am at the Ambassadors cocktail party and someone says something about the salt trade in the Sahara. I_know_ I've read something about it in Marq De Villiers' excellent book Sahara: A Natural History, but you can't for the life of you remember what it was.
    Should I:
    A) Make it up: "Oh yes, 93.4% of the world's salt was transported by just 3 camels across the Sahara in 43.6 days in 1948"


    B) Generalize: "I read something about that in a book recently. What's it called again??? Something about how a certain percentage of salt was transported across the Sahara by a number of camels, 3, or 12 or something like that. It took them something like 5 months back in the 20th century to do that journey.

    If it's A, there is usually some creepy reader standing next to you who corrects you: "...actually, it was a train of 200 camels, and it took them 128 days"
    If it's B, then everyone just nods slowly, and drifts away.....

    I always lose.

    Another funny thing about being a speedy is that your brain has an automatic spell/grammar checker that you can't turn off. I correct words while reading without even noticing it! Plays heck whenever I have to edit anything. I think I've corrected everything, give it to someone else and they find another 100 mistakes in it.


  8. I think I'm in the middle myself, though it depends on the book and how much time I have.

    Like Simon, if I'm not as engrossed, I'll read slower.

  9. I think it really depends on what I am reading. If it's a really intense scene, I tend to skip words just to get to what happens next. But, usually, I do like to savor each word. If I have the time, I can finish a good length novel in about 2.5 days.

  10. Matt, I'm afraid I'm a B sort of person. I'm usually well into my lecture on Saharan salt production before I suddenly realise I don't remember anything about it. That must be why I no longer get invitations to the ambassador's parties. Does he still do that thing with the piano?

    Terry, I'm afraid to say I read at the same pace whatever the book. The biggest difference for me is whether or not I can be bothered to finish it.

    Anita, 2.5 days is pretty speedy:)

  11. I'm a slow reader. Usually it takes me a month to get through a novel. I was really proud of myself for reading three novels in the last three weeks but I see that for you, a novel a week is a creepy pace! Ah well. The only time it has been a problem is when I once wanted to read through my novel in progress and realised that it would take me a fortnight to do it. I decided not to bother and ploughed on with the writing instead.

  12. Thanks, Helen. Three novels in as many weeks is actually pretty speedy, if you ask me. Reading my own material doesn't take so long, but I think this is because I remember a lot of it, which isn't helpful when hunting for typos.


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