Sunday 14 December 2008

Reading at the Speed of Light

Today's topic is crying out for a Stuck-in-a-Book sketch, but that requires more energy than I have after mulled wine, mince pies and Scrabble. Mmm, Christmas...

The other day Elaine at Random Jottings wrote about the mixed blessing and curse that reading incredibly quickly can be. I've known Elaine online for nearly five years now, and have always been rather jealous of her amazing reading rate - I believe, including lighter, quick reads, Elaine has read 250 books this year. Compare that to my 130... yes, that's an awful lot (possibly more than I've read any other year) but that is testament to all the time I had this year for reading, rather than my speed. I'm not slow, but I'm not very fast. Well, I'll qualify that statement a little later.

Elaine writes on her blog, and has mentioned to me before, that when she reads she 'sees' the words, whereas most readers 'hear' them - and that the 'seeing' is slightly quicker on each sentence, which builds up to a lot quicker over all. If you're thinking the idea is nonsense, watch out for it next time you're reading a novel - I bet you'll be hearing the words faintly while you read. It becomes more obvious when you hit a word you don't know how to pronounce, or used to mispronounce... Now, I've discovered that I can actually choose how I read - my default is to 'hear' the word, but if I want to read something quickly, I can switch to 'see'ing it. But, for me, this deadens the words - I get the meaning without any emotional connection. Very odd. Probably not remotely scientific, but... (Oo, actually, see this study which I just found, about emotional impact and speed of reading...)

Before speaking to Elaine, I always considered fast reading an unadulterated blessing - but she recounts mistrustful teachers and other occasions on which it's been more of a curse. What about you? Do you read fast or slowly? Can you see fast reading as a curse, or would you long for it? Do you take your time over some books, and race through others? Or have you never really given a second thought to the speed of your reading? Perhaps someone with a scientific turn of mind could explain some or all of this to us... how innate is the speed of reading, and can we change it?


  1. I have a movie playing in my head when engrossed in a terrific read. Should something interrupt me I am suddenly aware of the print where I wasn't before. I don't know what my brain is doing to explain that!

  2. I love that we are 'having this conversation' - it is all so interesting. I have alwasy been a faster reader than the average person around me in class or work and able to process things quickly. I have noticed since Elaine mentioned it, that yes I do hear the words. But on the flip side, I 've noticed over the years that names of places/people that I cannot pronounce don't slow me down. I don't bother trying to sound them out- unless I'm trying to say them, rather I see it as a symbol or representation of that person/place. So maybe I do a bit of that 'seeing' thing. Do wish I could read as fast as Elaine, or maybe I just wish I had more time.

  3. To Tara: same here, I've always known that I'm not an average reader, my speed in reading always amazes me when I realize that its more than average, and I'm deeply surprised to have Speed Reading discovered...

  4. I think I both 'see' and 'hear' the words, but just 'seeing' takes some of the pleasure out of reading and also means that I haven't taken in what I've read and I can't remember any of it - this happens particularly when I'm tired - it's not something I can decide to do. The 'seeing' is not like visualising the book, which as Darlene describes is when I see a movie in my head - I know when I'm visualising vividly that a book is good and that is when I'm emotionally 'in the book'.

    If I want to read something very quickly I scan read - reading a few words on each line, enough to get the gist of what I'm reading. Again this is not as satisfying or efficient as my normal reading speed, which is quite fast anyway. Some books take longer to read than others and I read those quite slowly and others I race through I would like to read more quickly but I wouldn't want that to mean I didn't get the emotion and meaning.

    I don't think fast reading is a curse, nor do I think slow reading is a bad thing - it's all individual and what suits one person doesn't necessarily suit another. Elaine's teacher sounds dreadful.

  5. Simon, let's get one thing straight. If you read 130 books this year, you read VERY fast.

  6. I think I can do both as well. Normal boring letters from school will be SEEN, but only the important words such as "geography" "trip" "£xx" "by Wed". If I am reading a book to get through it, like the infamous Pinkerton's Sister that I was determined to finish when everyone else gave up then I will see the beards - eek I just typed that subconsciously!
    Maybe one of the reasons i love short stories is that I allow myself to hear the words so that the short story becomes more like poetry.
    I also agree with Darlene about having a film playing in your head. My sister is currently writing her first novel and I just keep seeing it as a film rather than a book but maybe that is because I am now so familiar with the thing. I have probably read it through about 6-10 times this year.
    I must sit down and see how many books I have read this yearI supsect it will be less than a dozen because other than when I am on holiday I almost don't allow myself to read. I find that I need to DO something to unwind after work so I am confined to a few minutes on the train but that is only if I don't see one of my band of "train friends".

  7. I agree with you that for me 'seeing' the word as opposed to hearing it takes away from the reading experience. I do find that the more I read, the faster I read. But, it definitely depends on the book most of the time. Some books must be read more slowly in order to get the full experience.

  8. I generally read fast...and the "seeing" vs. "hearing" makes sense, even though I've never thought about it that way. I do slow down and take my time with some readings (sometimes out of necessity and sometimes just because I like to do so). Interesting!

  9. I'd say I'm a slow reader - I 'hear' the words in my head but they 'speak' at the same speed as someone actually reading the book aloud. I've always wished I could read more quickly, for the sake of my 'to read' pile if nothing else! On the other hand, I like feeling that I've really 'lived with' a book, and taken my time over it. They take so long to write, it's nice to take a while to read it sometimes!
    - Button

  10. I sort of see the speed that you read as a bit like the speed you walk. Some poeple and fast and some slow, and it depends on mood and where we are walking. Just because I walk fast doesn't mean I don't tke things in! And sometimes I like to saunter (and I always saunter thorugh poetry).
    I read fiction faster and non-fiction slower because of ease with the subject and comprehension - but if I try to speed one up or slow down the other, it just leads to distraction.
    This would all be solved if we didn't have to go to work and could read to our heart's content...

  11. I have found the reactions to my post really interesting and one thing I do emphasise most strongly that when I 'need' to read slowly, when I am studying or feel a book has to be savoured more, I do slow down. It is not a conscious action at all, I just do it. Also must emphasise something that my teacher never believed is that I have never ever claimed to take in everything or understand everything first time round. She seemed to take it as a personal insult that I read a particular book so quickly. My response to all this is that my ignorance is the same whether I have read the book in 3 days or 3 weeks!!!


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