How Reading Fast Slows You Down

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On to the next book!

“It is not just about being well-read, it is about reading well”

Writing a book and literary blog has me thinking if I will have time to read all the books I want. I know I still can but it requires enough time management to pull off. How will I ever balance the time I spend reading with the time I spend writing? Simple, just learn how to speed read. Speed-reading is a straightforward practice. By extending the landscape of your peripheral view and minimizing the information or “skimming” for the most important information written on a page, you are on your way to being a speed-read demon! Read again.

When you read this sentence, as a reader, you cannot predict the following sequence of the message being told without having to see and read each and every word. Are there certain phrases you can notice based on diction and punctuation that serve no other purpose but to be an aesthetic and transitory choice? Most certainly, but not every sentence is worth skimming. This is not new age flash fiction. One word makes all the difference to the meaning presented versus the one personally given. Of course, the point of speed-reading then becomes less about sensibility or memory and more about tangibility or information.

I thought I would be able to devote more time, and in effect more quality, to my writing if I could just get from cover to cover in the least amount of time possible. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, my writing suffered. Speed-reading restricts a complete understanding of a text by acknowledging only the information it provides and not the expression of it. What does reading mean for me if I am just flipping pages as fast as I would recite the alphabet?

Speed reading proves ineffectual if you intend on retaining and comprehending what you read. Otherwise, it is a remarkable feat to see how fast you can turn a page without receiving a paper cut. Your writing on a subject will be a reflection of how well you read that subject too. It is not just about being well-read, it is about reading well. Friends of mine tell me how fast they read, some coming in at less than a few hours. I cannot help but wonder why they read so fast other than to get to their next book as soon as possible. Now I am not saying it is not possible to retain a story’s characters and events within such small amounts of time, but memory does not always end up being 20/20 hindsight.

To get through every page without skipping a word (and I do falter and have to back track to words, even sentences, I missed if I am not careful) is a challenge but it does not have to be. Why bother reading fast if the margin for error is higher than your comprehension? While it seems the only benefit speed-reading has is surveying the page for grammatical errors and typos, it is a potential malpractice we can correct. Instead of measuring the pages to minute scrutiny, find the right pace.

Pacing allows you to read at the speed where you will best comprehend a text. Staples tests how fast you can read with real pieces of literature and my results were 282 words per minute which is close to the average of 300 for adults. Staples’ test also shows you how long it would take you to read certain pieces of literature after the results. I do not know if the test is giving me the benefit of the doubt or adding insult to injury, because I do know it took me a month to digest the brick that is Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and that was with devoted hours set aside every Thursday through Sunday.

My general rule of thumb tends to be lenient with a chapter or more for reading and a page or more for writing each hour. I do this with the same attitude as Anne Lamott’s “small assignments” from her book Bird by Bird. Lamott says to read and write in balanced and gradual amounts, enough to fill a “one-inch picture frame,” to avoid getting bogged down by the rest you have to read or have to write (17). A paragraph is much more manageable than a whole page, let alone an entire book.

I am satisfied with my pace and it may be slower than yours, but reading the fastest is not what is important. Reading to comprehend regardless of when you finish reading is. Challenge yourself, read something unfamiliar to you; I would not have thought twice about reading Bleak House given its intimidating length but I was better for knowing the difference between Lord Doodle and a Dandy (by the way, not so different).

Slow and steady is the approach I take and I may not win the race of time. What I do win is the pleasure and quality of reading long after having read.

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