BTT: Need for Speed

btt2What 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.

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8 comments

  1. I have to say that I don’t get people who speed read pleasure books – that is anything one does not have to read for school/work/some other obligation. I understand that these people read more, but it seems to me that they wind up getting less out of their reading for many of the reasons you list. I am constantly amazed by the number of readers out there who are reading upwards of 100 books a year (I realize for most bloggers, 100 books is a paltry number), many of them well over 200… I wonder how people are able to connect with and synthesize what they are reading when they are ostensibly spending so little time with the material! I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that we should be impressed with those that read a book a day, that quantity trumps quality. I want books that move me, provoke me, cause me to think; I can’t imagine I could achieve this if I were burning through books at that rate.

    The other thing I wonder about is, if reading something said reader claims to enjoy, why is there this urge to do it as quickly as possible. Normally I want the pleasures in life to last as long as possible! Should we really congratulate someone that she made it through a book in two hours? That’s like bragging over being able to down a Happy Meal in a minute… What’s so wrong with going slow and taking the time to think and enjoy?

  2. I read fast. That doesn’t mean I’m intentionally racing or that I’m ignoring the language of the book. After years and years of reading for pleasure and for education my natural pace of reading has increased. Yes, I did work on it with some speed reading techniques but that doesn’t mean in I’m in a race to read though more books than everyone else. My comfortable pace of reading is just now faster than perhaps the average reader.

  3. Great post! I read different books at different speeds. Some books just need to be read slowly, taking weeks or even months to complete, by reading a page or two at a time; whereas some YA books I’ll fly through in an hour or two.

    I know that I am going to love a book when I find I can’t rush it, when I don’t want it to end and I enjoy every single word. I like being able to switch between the two different kinds, as sometimes my mind needs a rest from the complicated (but ultimately more rewarding) literature.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ll confess that sometimes the pressure to post a new review or get to the next book on the stack has caused me to read faster than I might otherwise, and I do believe that something is lost when I hurry. (And I suspect my reviews reflect my hurried state.)

    If I’m reading the book equivalent of Doritos, then *maybe* I don’t need to slow down. Then again, maybe I’d enjoy those Doritos even more if slowed down with those too. I’d like to know I’m giving the book I’m reading my fullest attention–if I’m doing that, I think I can find the pace that suits me at that given moment and that fits the book I’m reading. To me, that’s a better reading goal than getting through a certain number of books or pages.

  5. This is beautiful. I agree — there may be some technical things or assignments that are read just to get them over with, but if I felt that way about pleasure reading — it really wouldn’t be much of a pleasure. I like to slow down and savor.

  6. I’m glad you brought up Prose’s quote about how her students were taught to be automatically negatively critical of a story. From my own graduate experience, I think that’s true. I think the way literature is taught affects the way we read. On the opposite end being taught to be swept up by the greatness of capital-L lit simply because it’s great without any explanation why it’s great. And I wonder if many students now are taught that reading’s purpose is simply to inform?

  7. As a college student, I’m agreeing with theexile on the techniques that students are taught about reading. I just finished taking an English class and didn’t hear any about language from my professor. I think that’s why certain books with beautiful language may be critically-acclaimed but regular people don’t really read like Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. My reading slowed to a crawl when I was reading it. I’ve noticed that when I’m into the language of a book, I start reading passages aloud.

  8. Steph, I wonder about that too: why would one want to speed through an enjoyable activity? I realize some people feel the need to set goals for themselves to read a certain number of books a year, but that is not a compulsion I share. Even if I could say I “got through it all” (meaning my TBR list), what joy would there be? What would I remember?

    Pussreboots, I think there is a difference between being a naturally quick reader and speed-reading. Speed-reading to me has one objective: to finish the book and comprehend material as quickly as possible–speed-reading is NOT about nuance!

    Jackie, I agree and function much the same way. How quickly I read a book often depends on the book, or whether I plan to talk about it on the blog.

    Teresa, I have experienced great guilt over racing through books to talk about them on the blog. I certainly don’t want visitors to be bored, but I ultimately decided that I cannot (and should not) rush myself, because it makes me start to resent the whole process. I was reading and writing up thoughts like I had a deadline, and it just felt like too much. Now I am reading at my own pace, and sitting with my thoughts as long as it takes to write about a book.

    Barbara, obviously we agree! I do think speed-reading has its place. I can’t think of anything that I do for pleasure that I want to go by as quickly as possible. It’s like watching one’s favorite movie on fast-forward. What’s the point?

    Theexile, I cannot agree with you more. I think part of it definitely has to do with the workload, but the other part of it, especially in English grad classes, has to do with literary criticism–students are always expected to be reading through a lens of one theory or another, without actually reading (i.e., close reading) the book.

    Vasilly, it’s true. As I said above, you get forced to look at a work through one lens or another, and not at the language. What’s the point in assuming that every writer writes with some sociopolitical end in mind? And even if they do, that does not mean they don’t carefully execute their work and deserve attention for doing so!

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