Monday, 29 October 2007

Speed Reading?

I’m always astonished at the speed at which other people get through books. I don’t mean the hours they are prepared to spend reading – I’m quite prepared to spend those hours too – but the actual rate at which they move down a page.
I’ve just done a quick calculation on both the books I’m reading at the moment: Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces and Julie Hearn’s The Merrybegot. Given that the Faulks has much denser type and runs at just over 400 words a page whereas Julie Hearn’s book has around 250 words to a page, from the time it takes me to read a page of each, I calculate that I read just over 200 words a minute.

A quick Google-search reveals that that average (American) person reads English at 220 words per minute. This makes me feel better – I’m about average in terms of reading speed. I always though I was monumentally slow. (Maybe I’m just monumentally slow for people who read a lot?) But this revelation of my averageness must mean that almost all those whose reading habits I am familiar with are well above average. All the members of my book swallow up books as if there was a prize for finishing quickly. My Other Half reads approximately twice as fast as I do and can easily read a whole book in an afternoon.

I wonder if it’s to do with how you read? I hear pretty well every word inside my head as I read and, actually, 220 words per minute is only just over the upper limit of average spoken words per minute (Google again – where would we be without it?) If you simply process written words by seeing them and don’t have to run them through the hearing bit of your brain, I suspect you’re bound to be able to read more quickly, vision being able to take in chunks whereas the ear has to work in a systematically sound-by-sound way.

Unless you count the fact that my ‘books to be read’ pile is so big that it flows down off my bedside cabinet, on to the floor and out into the landing, my inability to read quickly has only ever really been a drawback at University. I read English and the time necessary to get my head around, for instance, three or four Dickens novels in a week (plus Anglo Saxon poetry – it was two essays a week in those days and down the salt mines in your spare time…) left me absolutely no time to read any works of criticism. So I had to decide – read the great works of Eng Lit or read the critics? Please! I’d come to Oxford to read English, why would I want to know what somebody had said about Tennyson more than I wanted to know what Tennyson had said himself?

Of course, there was the small matter of producing acceptable essays. The drawback with not reading critics – people who are prepared to tell you what’s good, what’s bad and what the guy is basically going on about – is that you have to work out, all by yourself, what is important in these towering works of genius. No wonder my tutor once remarked that I produced ‘wonderfully idiosyncratic’ essays.
Still, I comfort myself with the thought that, just occasionally, my inability to process sufficient written words in a week might have had the unintended effect of providing an amusing interlude for the poor, overworked man.

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