Slow, slow or quick quick reading?

In a recent post on Thinking in Fragments, Alex asked for suggestions on how to fit more reading into her day. I wish I had some pearls of wisdom to send her way but I’m struggling with the same issue myself. When I first started blogging and interacting on Library Thing I was flabbergasted to see how many books many of the members seemed to get through. Quite a few LibraryThing members seemed to read a new book every day whereas I think I’m doing pretty well if I can read a book a week.

I dont want to play the numbers game here. For me it’s not a competition between readers to see who can read the biggest number of titles. Nor are numbers themselves particularly meaningful – someone who reads a lot of novellas is clearly going to have a higher total than someone who reads a lot of nineteenth century novels ( those Victorians dos like to write a lot). My desire to read more stems from the fact a) it’s an activity I love so why not invest more time in doing what I love and b) there are just zillions of authors I have yet to discover and at my current rate it’s going  to take me decades to get to them all.

I know I am not the only one facing this dilemma. Looking around the Internet I find a range of approaches people have adopted in response.

Aim to read at least 10% of your chosen book  every day is the advice on one blog ( helpfully it suggests that if you have a particularly long book then 5% a day might be more manageable.  Break this into smaller periods of reading if that works best with your schedule. So if you have a 500 page book, try reading 25 pages in two sessions or if that doesn’t work, go down to the 25 pages (5% ) a day, read across two sessions.

A variation of this approach is to read a set number of pages per day. This was the plan adopted by Andy Miller when he embarked on his Year of Reading Dangerously. Except his target was 50 pages. Which was ok when he had days involving a train commute to work but on weekends he found he was making excuses to go to the Post Office just so he could read while standing in the queue (if the Post Office keeps on closing their local branches, the queues will inevitably get longer which is good for readers but not much fun if all yiu want is to buy a stamp).

Get up earlier is another popular piece of advice. “If you can only devote 15-30 minutes of reading each morning you can read 20-30 books year” according to an article at life  which is great if yiu happen to be the kind of person who is bright and alert in the morning. But I’m no lark so that approach is doomed to failure. I do sometimes go to bed earlier though, just so I can read a few extra pages.

How about reading instead of watching tv? I dont watch that much anyway.

If I can’t find any more time in the day, could I maybe read faster. According to Tony Buzan and many other experts In speed reading techniques and time management it’s possible, with enough practice, to increase from the average reading speed of  200-400 words per minute to around 1000-1700 words per minute. Even at the lower end of that scale it could mean I get to read five times as much.

Theres a catch here however.  It’s all to do with how you interpret the word ‘Reading’ . Certainly I would get through a book quicker so strictly speaking yes I would be reading faster. But would I understand what I was reading? Probably not according to research. All of the popular methods  such as skimming, meta guiding and Rapid Serial Visual Presentation have drawbacks.  In Keith Rayner’s “Eye movements and information processing during reading”  he comments

You can practice going faster and you probably will, but when you start going too fast you’ll start losing comprehension. Most speed reading methods involve getting rid of subvocalization. Research shows that when you do that and the text is difficult, comprehension goes to pieces.

This means I would be reading my books faster but I wouldn’t actually be absorbing what I was reading. Which really defeats the purpose doesn’t it? I could get to the end of a long novel and feel super smug and satisfied but then if anyone were to ask me to explain the book or describe it, I would struggle to recall any detail. For me that mean all those hours I spent reading would have been wastes effort.  There are further enlightening comments about speed reading techniques in this article f you’re interested. I’ve read enough now to know that speed reading will not be the answer for me. I think I’ll just resolve to enjoy what I’m reading, and to go for quanity over quantity.


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on February 8, 2016, in Sunday Salon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 51 Comments.

  1. Yah, I don’t need an article to tell me what my problem is. Too much social media. If I would just put down the iPhone and pick up a book my list of books read would be a lot more impressive. Unfortunately, the iPhone is glued to my hand.

  2. I’m sort of a proud slow reader. I’m sure I’d like to finish more books but I like to think about them over a week’s time. I think 50 a year is about right for me. I dont like to rush. I agree quality over quantity. Enjoy.

  3. It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? If one read day & night, one simply could not keep up with the torrent of new publications – unless one had a very narrow, niche range of intended reading. And when did reading start to be all about the numbers? As you so right say: quality over the quantity. What about savouring the prose ?

    • I don’t know when the numbers thing started to be so prominent, maybe when tools like goodreads started giving us the capability to keep count?

      • BTW I purposely avoid the GoodReads challenge but good luck to anyone who enjoys it.

        I find it quite funny that I’m reading only the third book of this year. I started the year with a short book, then read Bleak House (1000+ pp) and I’m now reading the first of four books of ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (725 pp), which could count as three books in itself but I won’t. I’m enjoying my reading even if the numbers are low.

        • I saw a comment today that someone saw they were falling behind on their Goodreads target so they pulled out some short books from their TBR. Rather pointless I thought to let a self inflicted goal determine what you are reading

        • Haha, except, I suppose, if they want to read them some time they may as well do it now and kill two birds with one stone!

  4. You’re right numbers are not really meaningful when it comes to books. That’s why I also don’t like the set page/percentage targets, it really depends on a book, some of them you can finish in an hour some take days of reading because they simply require more focus and attention. When I was trying to get more time for reading I planned my evenings around it, to have an hour of reading a day, but it required a whole ritual of making myself a cup of tea and having my space to read. I stopped that now, I read when I can and feel like, I also try to stay away from challenges, because they always end up stressing me that I should be reading more and faster. I don’t! I should be reading in a way I can enjoy 🙂

  5. I sent the Dear Book Nerd podcast a question about reading fast/slowly. Although my question was featured and discussed at length, I still struggle. As you mentioned, it’s not the quantity; it’s just that I also want to discover as many authors/books as possible.

    I got in touch with a company that offers speed reading lessons but my intent to enroll in their classes fell apart when I realized that my problem is I have so many distractions going on, particularly movies, podcasts, the Internet, and games. I don’t mind the former two competing with books for my attention, but the latter two are a different matter. What I did is I uninstalled all my social media apps on my phone to lessen a huge chunk of distraction. The games, well, I still have an ongoing battle with them, but what I did is that I only play during a set time.

    I’ve long been doing the 50 pages per day practice except when I’m not feeling the urge to read, of course. The 10% rule looks like a nice variation if one feels that 50 pages is too many. I don’t have any new tips to offer. Probably one should stop pressuring oneself to finish this number of books and accept the fact that one cannot read everything that they want. Also, if one really digs a particular book, they will definitely fly through it in no time.

    • the positive thing here is that you know what the time wasters are and have started to tackle them. I;ve cut down on Facebook and Twitter considerably which can easily suck up time

  6. I am waiting for the invention that will allow me to read while I sleep 🙂

  7. I agree with your last line. Quality over quantity. I’ve used an electronic speed reader, but decided I would only use it for non-fiction articles that I found interesting and really just wanted to know more about, but never for something that I’m really really interested in or for the fiction I read as a life-source 😀

    • Im dubious about the whole speed reading thing. I see the potential if you have a lot of academic work to review and want to get to the nuggets of useful info quickly but I don’t see how it can possibly be of benefit for fiction where the value lies surely in the appreciation of connections and layers of meaning

  8. I agree – no point speed reading just to tick off titles. Relish your reading time. That said, life’s too short for bad books so make every word count!

  9. We all have different schedules and different commitments. I also get frustrated that I can’t read more, but I grab every minute I can.

    • Good sound advice Guy. Its also about making choices in how you use your time. so for me I would rather get out of the office for a walk up to the supermarket than spend the time sitting at a desk (i already spend far too many hours on my posterior)

  10. Speed reading has never appealed to me. And there are some books which seem to demand that you read them slowly just so that you can engage in a conversation with the ideas that are being explored. Have you started the ‘Literature and Mental Health’ course yet? They are definitely coming down heavily on the slow slow side of the debate.

    • I’m way behind on that course Alex. I was hoping to have time when I was away on my work trip but it never materialised. I should know by know that by the time I get back to the hotel room at the end of a long day I have only enough energy to watch an hour of so-so tv and an hour reading. everything else more or less goes out of the window

  11. This is a fun topic to think about. I think of reading like any other hobby — the amount of time spent on it is proportional to the “quality” of the work, though there will always be variation in base level talent for anything, and quality is kinda subjective anyway. Some people sew a hundred t-shirts, pajama pants, etc. over the year, and some people sew a handful of couture quality coats and suits. Some people do lots of quick sketches over the course of a week, some people spend months on one detailed oil painting. Some people read lots of pop fiction or speed-read their way through classics just to say they’ve read ’em, some people want to sit down with cup of tea and maybe a pencil for notes so they can absorb as much from their book as possible. That doesn’t mean either way is right or wrong, but the quality of the reading experience is going to be different.

    • Well said. just like any other interest, you get out of it what you put into it. I don’t like the idea of making notes (feels a bit too much like studying) but I can appreciate people who get deeply engaged with the text by doing that.

  12. I was going to say read in the morning, because that works for me. When I don’t read in the morning, I often get to bedtime and that’s the only time left for reading, when I’m tired and sleepy. I don’t keep track of number of books/pages/hours read, but also listen to audiobooks a lot, so that would add to my books completed each month. I fritter a lot of time away on Facebook and need to cut back on that!

  13. Vicky’s comment prompts a thought in me that of course some writers and some kinds of books are simply quicker reading than others. If I read a light crime novel, or for that matter a Beryl Bainbridge, I tend to fairly zip through it. Proust even without the length has to be taken fairly slowly.

    The funny thing is it’s not just about quality. Bainbridge is a fine writer, but I do think she’s a quick read, quicker than some other equally fine writers. Sometimes it’s a question of style as much as anything else.

    • my experience the last two weeks certainly bears out your comment re differing styles Max. I zipped through the C J Sansom book which I could understand because though not ‘light and frothy’ reading its not very richly textured. Pym was also a fast read though had more nuances.

  14. I don’t usually think about numbers of books or pace of reading. I read because I enjoy it. If I don’t enjoy a book I tend to stop reading it. Sometimes I think about pace when I’ve read a very well written book – a Beryl Bainbridge or a Pat Barker and have whizzed through it. At the end I might think you read that too quickly you should read it again and sometimes I do!

  15. I’m with you – quality over quantity. It’s hard, though, when there are so many good books out there that you want to read.
    I’ve always felt like a slow reader, and so, out of curiosity, took one of those reading tests that tell you how fast you are, and I came in at below average reading speed. I suspect that my reading is a bit faster than that on average – I’m slower at the beginning of a book until I get into it and then I think I speed up. Anyway, all this to say that you don’t have to be a fast reader to get a lot of good-quality reading done. 🙂

    • Ive no idea what my reading speed actually is – I should go and do one of those tests out of curiousity. I know it varies depending on the format of the book – if its paper I read more slowly than if its an electronic version

      • I was just curious to know for myself. I have always felt like a slow reader, but really had no proof. Now, I have it, but it doesn’t really change anything, except that I can answer those questions about how fast I must read with confidence.

  16. Some bloggers are retired, some have jobs that aren’t that time-intensive or or perhaps long and predictable commutes, and some people do read a bit faster though not I think usually so much so as to make a vast difference over a year. Those though with more free time naturally will tend to be able to read more than those with less.

    Many of us do have jobs that eat up time, many will have children or other calls on time and that’s ok. I read about a book a week, until 2015 in fact I wasn’t even reading that much.

    Most of the tips you discuss sound like chores. Read 50 pages a day. Must I? It’s not a job. Read 10%, or 5% if a chunkster, that’s not always practical. Get up early? Like you I’m not a morning lark, if I get up half an hour early I’ll end up reading less as I’ll be too tired all the time.

    Speed reading doesn’t really work except for skimming articles or when a precis is sufficient. It’s completely pointless and even self-defeating when reading for pleasure.

    So, we’re just left with choosing what we read carefully given the time we have. Lisa also makes great points regarding looking at how you spend your day, which is worth doing generally and not just for freeing up potential reading time.

    Nice post. Thought provoking.

    • Really good point Max about the idea of a quota per day feeling like a chore. I found myself in that spot last year where I had only a certain number of days in which to read the book for the book club meeting. so i worked out how many i needed to read per day. it became a bind to open the novel and think I HAD to read x number of pages. totally spoiled the experience

  17. I can’t pay attention to how much others read — or don’t read — its too personal to them and the genre they are attracted to. With my attempt to tackle the Guardian 1000 (kind of ridiculous but there you go) the only thing I can say is read every day. Also — reading at lunch might be a possibility, too. If I’m not meeting someone I’m just sitting at my desk going through emails so might as well put that time to better use……

    • tackle emails or read? no contest for me. though I spend too much time sitting down so I use the lunch break to walk to the supermarket. otherwise I’d hardly move in the day

  18. I think I reached my max of 120 books one year, but in looking back, I remember virtually none of what I read, and my reviews of the books are trash to non-existent. It was then that I decided to slow down and in turn write better reviews, which lead to my blog. Last year I decided to slow down even further and ultimately read 65 books, which is my lowest number by far for a number of years.

    The goodreads challenge can be both a blessing and a curse, and has caused me to read more books of lower quality in order to meet an arbitrary number, so that quantity rather than quality ruled.

    • If you find yourself reading just to meet a goal, then yes it does seem questionable. Ive put 50 in for the good reads challenge but honestly speaking, I have no idea why I did that…..

  19. It can be really galling when other people’s book consumption doubles or triples your own. I’m completely baffled at how people find the time, but ultimately I think that quality beats quantity. Certain books really benefit from a slow read, and I’d much rather be a slowcoach and luxuriate in fine prose than race ahead just to bag another title.

  20. I am often amazed when I hear people say that they read a huge book in a day. I’m such a slow reader, partly because I often find myself daydreaming whilst reading. Any attempts to force myself to read more or more quickly just end up with me not enjoying the experience. So, I believe that, for me, the only solution is to try to be more selective with what I read.

    A few years ago I decided to read summaries of books. Along with reading blog reviews and watching TV/film adaptions I hoped to cover more. If a plot-heavy book that I fancied reading appears as a film I tend to watch the film and decide not to read the book as I don’t particularly like reading novels with intricate plots.

    I still get frustrated that I can’t read more but I try to remember that I’m doing this for pleasure and fulfilment. My year of reading Proust (2014) taught me to read more slowly and possibly to try to read less, not more.

    • Proust is certainly not someone who can be rushed unless your idea of reading is just to skim the lines (not suggesting that’s what you are doing by the way!). It does however speak to the point that you can actually read more by reading less – by that I mean you gain more from the experience if you spend time with the text instead of just letting it pass before your eyes

  21. My friends always say that I’m a fast reader because I read a lot of books, but I always respond with the true fact that I am actually quite a slow reader. I just spend more time to read than other people. Great post!

  22. I think you’ve answered your own question, really. The number of books you read and the rate at which you read them is irrelevant. What you want is more time to do what you love.
    It’s no different to the find-time-to-exercise issue.
    I’d suggest you look closely at how you spend your day, especially the little bits of it that add up to quite a lot of your day. Some of those will be necessary (e.g. housework that’s essential for hygiene – but not dusting the ornaments in case The Houseproud visit). But unless you are a very weird person some of these little bits of time are bound to be unnecessary (e.g. ironing, paying bills that could be direct debit, waiting in Qs for something unnecessary) and some of them will be pleasurable time-wasters (e.g. reading other people’s blogs, coffee with friends, window-shopping, keeping up with popular culture or messing around on Facebook). When you know which are which, then it’s a matter of prioritising. It might actually be that you would rather mess around online for some of your free time than read a book:) Or it might be that you decide to reallocate how much time you spend doing those other things.
    Also look closely at any tasks or activities where you have trouble deciding when something is finished. I’m a person who doesn’t know how to do 90% of a task, I only know how to do 110%. LOL Give me an undergraduate essay and I’ll do enough research for a PhD thesis. If you’re the same then you need to do what I did and offload at least one of those tasks completely. No, I am just not going to be the family archivist and keep the family photos all nicely labelled and organised. No, I am not going to weed the lovely rose garden that replaced my low-maintenance native garden.
    Whatever you choose to do, it’s your life, and you should enjoy most of it:)

    • thanks Lisa – your comment is full of very sound advice. I’m coming to the conclusion that some activities are not time wasters, they are things that are important (like going to the gym or responding to other bloggers). The only real time waster I have is the daily crossword puzzle in the newspaper. I can give that one up easily I think

      • Oh no, give up the crossword puzzle? Isn’t that supposed to be good for your brain?

        I have your challenge, and have decided to be content with what I can do. I’d call myself an average speed reader but I know I do read literary fiction more slowly than I read non fiction, etc. I do like to feel and hear the words, and I do like to mull. However, I know that I do spend time on some activities and tasks (housework not being one of them!) that I could devote to reading, so this is where I’m always looking for a bit more leeway.

        • Puzzles are indeed meant to be good but not sudoku apparently so I’ve given up on the latter. Trouble is the goal posts are always moving. Yesterday I read that learning g a language is good for protecting against dementia. Now that really would be time consuming

        • Not sudoku but yes to puzzles? I hadn’t heard that. It doesn’t really make sense though I’m glad it’s not the other way as I like crossword puzzles but not sudoku. As for language I had heard that. A musical instrument too they say – but that would be time consuming too! Stick to the puzzles I say!

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