I’ve always been a slow reader. My mother, who took a speed reading course in college, always used to encourage me to take one of these courses, and of course I would protest, claiming that I liked to immerse myself in the language, take it slow, pay careful attention, etc. etc.

That’s all true, certainly, but I wonder if I wasn’t too hasty in my dismissal of a variety of techniques which, if artfully applied, might double or triple the number of books I’d be able to read. Because that would be a good thing, right? Some speed reading techniques I learned to apply pretty naturally, such as the elimination of subvocalization. Others, like the necessarily anti-musical chunking, I’ve shied away from.

Still, to this day I have the experience, from time to time, of the language of whatever I’m reading seeming to push my ahead faster than my comprehension of the work will allow. So if the very rhythm of the text seems to insist on it, shouldn’t I take it upon myself to at least become equipped with the tools necessary to comply? I guess a fear would be that, once you “turn it on,” it would be very difficult to stop.

The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes a man named Howard Berg as the fastest reader on earth. He can reportedly read an apocalyptic 25,000 words per minute. At this rate, he’d be able to work his way through Shakespeare in just over half an hour. But is he appreciating it? I mean, even if for argument’s sake we give him the heart of a poet and the mind of a philosopher… What the is really absorbing? And if we got a percentage, say 30% loss of comprehension–even 50%–would his ability to read everything ever written make up for that loss?

I’m tempted to dismiss it all as acrobatics, but aside from such extreme cases, a reasonable argument could be made that it behooves lovers of language to at least try to pick up the speed a bit. Have you ever taken a speed reading course, or do you employ speed reading practices? Do you know any devout speed readers? Or are you philosophically opposed to such psychological engineering?

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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

12 responses to “Slow reader”

  1. Becky says:

    Well, if there’s really nothing new under the sun, theoretically speaking, whatever he missed he would just pick up somewhere else.


    I read pretty fast. Not a speed reader by any means, but fast enough. Comprehension seems to have less to do with how fast or slow I read than it does with what percentage of my mental faculties I’m able to devote to the reading.

    I’m not philosophically opposed to it, no. Maybe I’m not a savorer. Maybe I am a bad reader.

    Depends, maybe, on what I’m reading? Boring academic papers are not to be savored, for example. They ought to be dealt with. Hey. THERE’s a reason to take a speed reading course.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      I certainly think some things could stand to be read more quickly, indeed. But that’s one of the things I wonder about: can a speed reader turn it on and off?

      • Becky says:

        I would assume so, but I guess I can’t say that I know.

        As far as I am aware, speed reading is more of a perfected strategy for skimming.

        And of course, we can choose to either skim or not skim.

  2. Greg Olear says:

    “I took a speed reading class and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” – Woody Allen

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      It’s definitely an easy practice to satirize. But I think there’s something significant about it, about the way we use our time, and what relative value we place on depth versus breadth of experience.

      • Greg Olear says:

        There’s a difference between reading fast and actual speed reading. I read pretty quickly, and if I want to get through something, I usually know when to skim. But to read literary fiction, especially, or poetry, in such a way…I can’t see how you can really savor it. It’s the visual equivalent of gobbling down a nice piece of steak without chewing it. What’s the point? When I read something that’s written well, that’s written gorgeously, I slow down, just like I’d do if passing a gorgeous person on the street. In short: speed read through Dan Brown, but not Joyce.

  3. Tawni says:

    I read and comprehend really fast. People sometimes don’t believe how fast I read, or think I’m skimming. I have been verbally tested on the content of a book I’ve just finished by someone who thinks I couldn’t possibly have read it so quickly. I always pass those tests.

    I’m not employing any speed reading practices, I’ve just always read this way. I am annoyed by this quality sometimes, because reading is one of my favorite things to do. I want it to last. It can also be expensive, when you whip through books in a day that are meant to last a week. I don’t know what I would do without the stacks of library books I check out, because I can’t afford to buy them all.

    I once guest-hosted a music show and discovered that this skill came in handy for easily reading scrolling teleprompter words out loud to a camera. Who knew? (:

  4. Matt says:

    I’m like Tawni – I tend to read things pretty quickly, especially if it’s something that holds my attention, because in those cases you often have to pry the book from my hands to get me to stop reading it. I’m not a speed-reader by any means, I just get enthralled to what I’m reading and don’t want to stop.

    I’ve been known to do a 400-page novel in a day on a relatively regular basis. There are influential factors, of course: I tend to re-read things I like, and familiarization with the text expedites the reading process. But yeah, I zip through them really fast.

    I do make myself slow down with poetry, though. If I’m reading a volume of poetry I’ll usually only read 4-5 a day, max, and kind of meditate on them as I go about my day. For me, poetry loses impact the more that is consumed at a time.

  5. Nice balance of the merits to each approach, Shya. You raise compelling questions.

    I’ve always been slower reader, but I can recollect most of what I’ve read pretty much indefinitely, both in terms of text and nuance. I salute those who do it faster, but my innate rhythm works for me. And just as I wouldn’t plow through a gourmet meal, I feel that speed-reading through many of my favorite novels would have short-changed them.

    But again, I really do think it that, as with writing, no should recalibrate her or his method if it’s working.

  6. Edit: end of last sentence should read, “…no one should…”. Obviously.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    I have an unfortunate habit of skimming and missing the intricacies of the text – it’s a bad habit, and I wish I’d never picked it up. I honestly think it has damaged my writing abilities.

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