What do you think of speed-reading? Is it a good way to get through a lot of books, or does the speed-reader miss depth and nuance? Do you speed-read? Is some material better suited to speed-reading than others?
This is a timely topic, because I’ve been thinking a lot about reading. I recently read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, where she reminds us how very important it is to devote attention not just to the story or the plot, but the actual words on the page. She writes:
“With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.”
Stephen King, in his book On Writing, also laments the fact that fans seem to pay so little attention to the actual written words. He tells a story about talking to some fellow writers about questions they never get to answer at readings in front of “author struck fans.” It’s Amy Tan (author of The Joy Luck Club, among other books) who says to him, “No one ever asks about the language.” King says:
“[Amy] was right. Nobody ever asks about the language. They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and the Styrons, but they don’t ask popular novelists, yet many of us proles care also about the language in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper…it’s about the day job, it’s about the language.”
All of this strikes me as interesting because it seems like there are many readers out there who fall into this bucket of reading without giving language a thought. I suppose I believe that speed-readers would definitely fall into this category. To me, their objective is only to finish the book. While they might be entertained by the story and even grasp some of the nuances of plot, I doubt they grasp subtle turns of phrase, or even slow down long enough to enjoy lyrical prose. Many people read books as though they are eating Doritos out of the bag: they are yummy, but the consumption is rote. Nothing is savored. It is simply consumed.
There is a difference between reading for language and reading to have an opinion, also, and it’s sometimes easy to forget. Prose talks about students in an MFA program she taught years ago, shocked at the trouble they had reading the material for class:
“…it took me years to notice how much trouble they had in reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously, I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight centuries before they were born. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law…”
All that said, I think speed-reading is great for reading things like textbooks, where what matters is memorizing or understanding content. For example, speed reading is probably great for a law student, who has a great deal of material to cover in a semester. (I was also going to say it may be great for reading things like Harlequin romances, but thinking about Stephen King’s comment, I am reluctant to say so.) But I don’t think it’s ideal for reading any work–poetry, fiction, memoir, biography, or other non-fiction–where the author has put a great deal of time into the language and the construction of a narrative. In the end, I suppose the reader’s goal is the determining factor.