On Reading Fast and Slow
Some people count the number of books they read in a year. I only kept track once, in 2006, my final year as an undergraduate in English at the University of Toronto, and did so only out of curiosity. I wanted to know how many works of literature my professors had tried to stuff into my skull, and how many novels I’d managed to sneak in for pleasure. I forget the final count, but it was an incredible number—easily in the hundreds—more than I thought anyone would or should be capable of reading in a year.
The interesting part, in retrospect, is that it was probably my least memorable, not to mention my least enjoyable, year of reading. That’s not to say I regret it. I read a lot of exceptional books that year, some of which I still count as all-time favourites. The most constructive thing that resulted from keeping tabs was that I learned what kind of reader I really was.
At heart, I’m a slow reader. A close reader. If I’m in the right kind of mood, I’m a savourer of texts. I want my brain to sponge up every sentence, and if I’m alone I’m inclined to repeat sentences aloud, to feel the words and their poetry or blunt force of beauty in my mouth. As a writer as well as a reader, I don’t want to miss the subtlest reference or slightest authorial nod. I want to appreciate the artistry and strenuous complexity of a work. I would prefer to judge my year of reading on how many books I fully absorbed and enjoyed, as opposed to the number of words and pages I flashed before my eyes.
There are people out there—lucky, gifted people perhaps—who are said to be capable of comprehensive speed-reading. I am inclined to say, however, that even among speed readers, comprehensive readers are extremely rare. There is always a trade-off between understanding and speed: for contestants in the World Championship Speed Reading Competition, 50% comprehension is considered acceptable, if not high. I don’t know about you, but if I understood only 50% of a text, I would certainly not claim to have read it.
The problem with speed reading, and its ugly step-sibling skimming, is that such tactics emphasize getting through the text. The goal is always to finish, as though the exercise of reading were a burden; as though a book is some sort of roadblock to…well, to what exactly? To the next book, more than half of which will zoom past one’s eyes unnoticed and unappreciated, just like its predecessor? If a text is something to be rid of, why read it?
There’s no denying we live in a world of tweets and text messages, where information is simplified and immediate. Common phrases are reduced to hideous acronyms that become worse clichés than what they’ve replaced. I can’t remember the last time I saw the phrases “oh, my God” or “be right back” written out in words. I worry that, if we keep speeding things up and reducing the written word to symbols and images, we will lose control of information and be reduced ourselves to a culture of meta-guided automatons.
For me, the practice of slow reading is about taking back control. Literary critic Sven Birkerts and novelist Philip Pullman are also both advocates of reading at one’s own pace. For them, slow reading is not merely a means of achieving greater comprehension and enjoyment, but also a political undertaking. It’s about choosing the manner in which we read, rather than having that pace determined by someone—or something—else, our thoughts and actions dictated by a new alphabet of 140 characters or less.
Fight back. Read carefully.