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Are You Reading Too Fast?

Over at the Pyr blog, Ian McDonald talks about reading speed vs. quality of enjoyment when he asks How Soon is Now?

To me reading isn’t a [progression] of events, it’s a [sensory] wash; every part of the imagination is engaged, verbal, visual, empathetic, olfactory. Reading is a virtual reality that’s entirely personalised to you. It’s not about where you get to, –we all know what that is; the end, the last page, the final period, no more story and we’re all headed for that one way or another; it’s how you get there.

Nicholas Carr wonders in the The Atlantic if the online world is changing the way he reads. What interests me here is not so much the dwindling of attention spans, as what I call ‘nuggeting’ –scanning only for the important points, the catching points where the eye and the brain latch on to information –a point of change or transition or a contrast. Nugget to nugget, getting the eye-kicks in at the required bpm. I wonder if that’s what the commentariat mean when they say ‘the storyline did not engage me’ –the nuggets, the changes, the beats didn’t come fast enough. I think it’s a sad and bad thing. If we’re exposed to only what stimulates, it deadens the response. Reading isn’t only about finding out what happens next. Why hurry to the end? Take your time. There’s plenty to enjoy on the way.

For me, I’d say reading is a delicate balancing act on the speed scale. If I read too slow, I lose interest; if I read too fast, I lose the information being conveyed.Somewhere in between there is the sweet spot of reading enjoyment.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

14 Comments on Are You Reading Too Fast?

  1. Good topic.  Some people frustrate me with their boasting of read time, because some (possibly jealous) part of me believes they are competing and missing a lot of the best stuff.  Of course, few people are as slow as I am.  I have an almost obsessive compulsion to read every single word and if I think I’ve misread even the most insignificant preposition, I go back.  It’s an infuriating hang-up for someone who loves to read and I do wish I could read faster.  The good thing is that when I’m really engaged, the pages do start to turn a bit faster but, no, I wouldn’t say I’m one to skip over the bland parts (though sometimes I wish I could bring myself to).

  2. Weyland Yutani // February 22, 2009 at 3:08 am //

    It frustrates me how some people manage to get through so many books in a very small amount of time.   I think of my longest days of reading and I can’t even imagine how it is done.   I think about it a lot and I’ve come to terms that, as a visual artist, I have to see every moment in my head, directing the pages as if I was boarding out the novel like a story artist or composing the shots in my head.  I imagine angles and color and setting and line readings, and pretty much everything in a way that, although instantaneous, slows me down enough so that every page takes that much longer to read.

    I hope that is the case anyway.  I’d like to think that I form a rich experience.  It helps me rationalize my reading output.  The most unfortunate thing is that I look at books like Anathem and I know I’ll be in for a long haul.

    Ian McDonald will be happy to know that I pretty much blazed through River of Gods 🙂 Good stuff.

  3. I’ll admit that at the minute I’m trying to speed up in order to catch up, but I’m not reading books any faster than usual. Instead I’m diverting more time to reading from other activities.

    The speed I read is always dictated by the writer and how they’ve structured their story. First person is the easiest and fastest as you get lost in the voice but I am scared of people who read book after book. It does make me wonder how relaxing they are finding the experience.

    Reading after all should be about escapism.

  4. My problem is that if the story I’m reading is really good, if I get caught up in it, then I find I’m reading faster and faster…and I have to stop and back up to re-read the details and descriptions I missed.

    But I blame the authors for this…if they wouldn’t write so well, then I wouldn’t have this problem.

    I kid, I kid…

  5. I concur with John’s sentiment.  Too slow and I give up. 

    I’ll take my time on a novel if I find it truly interesting.  Al Reynolds and Nancy Kress often merit that sort of attention from me.  But my level of interest and the content of the novel dictates my reading speed. 

    If I lose interest, or if the Writer bores me with endless exposition, I’ll put the book down and go read something else. 


    S. F. Murphy

  6. I like to read and savor the images and ideas the writer is putting out. That way every book is a like a collaborative film in my mind. The writer supplies the ideas and my imagination fleshes them out.

    I can speed read very well, but that becomes about getting the words in which form loose ideas and that’s it. If that’s all I did, then I wouldn’t enjoy reading at all.

  7. CerebralMagpie // February 22, 2009 at 5:00 pm //

    I couldn’t imagine speed reading through. If I find I’m skipping parts, that means the book isn’t holding me and down it goes.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who needs to read thoroughly, and yes it frustrates me because I feel like I have years worth of backlog and authors I haven’t even discovered.

    I too am also jealous/amazed/scared of people who can in massive quantity – I feel incredibly inadequate. As with my whole life philosophy, I have way too many interests and a queri-some mind to stick with just one pursuit.

  8. I, too, read faster based on my enjoyment of the book.  Books I really like seem to fly by.  Ones I don’t drag on forever.  I have finally reached the point where set a book down if it fails to interest me after 50 pages.  If nothing gets my interest by that time, it usually doesn’t change the rest of the way through the book.

  9. When I’m reading for enjoyment I tend to be fairly methodical – the same easy speed for everything so I can soak up every detail. When I’m really enjoying a book, I find I don’t tend to read faster, but time seems to fly by and I’m more likely to allocate more time to reading. If a story or book is dragging, I’ll put it down. I know people who seem to whip through novels in no time at all and thus consume many in the course of a month, but I’ve always been suspicious that they’re missing details – that they’re more obsessed with wracking-up the numbers than actually enjoying the experience or getting something out of the story.


  10. I guess it depends on the style of book I’m reading. I just finished reading the Thursday Next books 1-4. I read each at about 100 pages/hour. Do I occasionally scan a paragraph and look at a 2-4 sentence block at once? Yes. Did I enjoy those books? Very much. 

    On the other hand, I took close to a month to read Gene Wolfe’s Shadow & Claw (1st half of the New Sun Tetrology). It was information ‘dense’ both insofar as explicit top-level meaning, on the level of subtext, and finally in the use of language itself. This too I enjoyed very much.

    Some folks feel that reading is a competition; I say vive la difference.


  11. I agree with Rik above. But I’m also a slow reader then I let the pacing of the story carry me along. Some pages are a real struggle for me and it can take me 2 weeks to read a hundred pages. Then on a Sunday afternoon I can read a hundred pages and wonder where did the time go?

    I used to smile at a co worker a few years back that said he did something called “block reading.” He’d look at a page and read a few lines and  move on. He said he got the gist of the story from the back cover and put the whole thing together and summarized the story. I said, “and you enjoyed the book?” He nodded, “sure.” Yeah right. Then I read where people say they “read” 60-100 novels a year. Sure. To me that’s not reading that’s skimming.


  12. For me, reading is the immersive experience that Lou Anders describes.  I do not really see the point otherwise.  I have never been one to scan texts.  For better or for worse I have always had the idea that the writer meant to put whatever words are there on paper and I am doing a complete disservice to the story if I am not absorbing every word. 

    That being said, I do believe that my initial foray into the world of blogging, particularly in entering into the book blogging universe, saw an increased pressure to read more and read faster.  There is this idea…quite true in many respects…that if you aren’t reading constantly then you are falling behind the curve.  What I had to do long ago was decide whether or not ‘keeping up’ was really important.  I decided that it was not. 

    On the positive side, I have taken that ‘pressure’ and used it to evaluate why I read and to also improve the experience for myself.   Blogging about books has given me the impetus to read many classics, particularly of science fiction, that I had been promising to read for years but didn’t.  The rewarding experience I have had reading those books  has made me eternally grateful to the science fiction blogging community who post wonderful things about these classics that lit a fire in me to the point where I started picking them up.  Conversely, blogs like SF Signal have made me conscious about making an effort to read at least some new science fiction every year and that too has been an incredibly rewarding experience.   Blogging has also made me cognizant of the times during the year when I would typically hit reading lulls.  This wouldn’t be a bad thing, necessarily, if it weren’t for the fact that most of the times when my reading tapers off I look back and realize that I didn’t replace reading with something worthwhile, I just wasted time.  That conscious look at reading has made me more pro-active about reading, my hobbies, etc. and that awareness tends to lead me to a more balanced overall life and one that includes a healthy amount of the written word.

    The challenge is to maintain that balance and not get caught up in some sort of novel reading competition over the course of the year with people who read faster than I do, who have more time to read than I do, etc.  My own personal challenge is to enjoy the heck out of whatever I am reading.  Currently I am reading Chasm City and it has not been a quick read simply because I have been overwhelmed with work and life issues.  However, each page has been a real delight and I am so thrilled with the story.  I haven’t had this process of ‘soaking’ in a story for a long time, but I am enjoying it.


  13. I really wanted to read all of this post but found myself skimming it.  Oops.  I am a very fast reader – always have been.  I remember coming home from the first day of school in maybe second grade and reading through the entire reading textbook for the year.  Suffice to say I was allowed to spend a lot of time in the school library.

    I think complaigning that people read too fast is kind of like complaining that you don’t approve of what they are reading.  They are only reading pulp fiction and best sellers, not real LITERATURE.  Whatever.  I am personally happy when people are reading, and don’t judge so much about what the are reading, or how.

  14. >>I really wanted to read all of this post but found myself skimming it.  Oops.

    Hiyo! 🙂

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