I’ve always had the feeling that I read slower than most people. There were clues…
My girlfriend turned her pages more frequently than I did while we read side by side. My fellow book clubbers read our monthly pick as one of many stacked upon their nightstand while I isolated my free time to the single book at hand. My fellow writer colleagues breezed through a beta-read of my manuscript while I set aside multiple weekends to return the service in kind.
As consolation, I’d tell myself the books my girlfriend read had larger font; my fellow book clubbers had more free time; and my writer colleagues were not devoting as much attention to my manuscript as I was to theirs.
But we know when we are lying to ourselves.
I wanted to know where I really stood as a reader. A small part of me hoped that I wasn’t slower after all, that perhaps I was simply surrounded by speed-readers. I mean, I’ve been a bookseller and/or librarian for nearly twenty years, now. It would make sense if my contacts were the much-above-par type. So I took an online reading test to see how I measured up.
The results shattered my delusion once and for all: I was slower, ever so slightly, than the national average. What it took the average reader to read in a minute would take me a minute and ten seconds. I was slightly worse at something than most people in the world. I was, in effect, a C- reader.
To put it bluntly, I read at the same speed whether silently or out loud. I read both the printed page and listen to an audio book at the same pedantic clip. And, yes, the horror of all horrors:
So I tried the speed-reading thing for awhile. Bought a book on it, practiced the methodology, got the general idea: Treat a page as though it’s a magazine column and allow your peripheral vision to grasp the outer margins; zip past nonsense words like “the” and “a” and “and”; learn to absorb a sentence as a collection of words much like absorbing a word as a collection of letters. And above all, don’t sub-vocalize. For Christ’s sake, don’t sub-vocalize!
I practiced awhile, and I made progress. Sure, I was stressed as hell whenever I picked up a book, but my words per minute were cranking up. I’d be digesting trilogies in no time.
Eventually, I reached a chapter of my speed-reading book that discussed ways of turning pages faster, to eliminate precious micro-seconds that could be spent gorging yourself on those far more valued words. And at that point, I couldn’t help but ask myself, what in god’s name I was doing.
Reading was no longer fun for me. It had become more of a competition than a passion. I was reading for the sake of reading; I was no longer reading for the sake of story. And story, for me, is where it’s at.
There’s no denying it: I’m slow. But now I hang my consolation on a different hook. And I have no less than one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, to thank for my peace of mind.
I heard him speak at UCSB, and he was talking about audio books. He said that yes, they are still “books,” even if you listen to them. He went on to say that authors often prefer that people listen to their books than read their printed counterparts—because when people read print, they skip a lot. Not just words, but concepts. They tear forward to the “good parts.” Here he was, the author, taking the time to select each word with professional care, and here we were, the readers, dismissing his efforts with reckless abandon. How rude! And above all, what a disregard for pacing! After all, would you watch a movie in fast-forward? Would you skip ahead only to the good parts? Of course not! You’d wreck the intended experience.
To fully appreciate a movie, you are compelled to watch every single scene. To fully appreciate an audio book, you are compelled to listen to every. Single. Word.
I write novels. I choose each word with care. If you are a C- reader, I not only identify with you… I thank you with all my heart.