Three Books, Three Days: Here’s What I Learned
Are you a reader? I mean like, are you mad about reading? Do you read a lot? At least a book a week? If you’ve found this site, I bet you are. I don’t post random inspirational quotes, nor do I put up a ton of pics. I write. Also, my articles are probably a little longer than average, hovering somewhere in the 2,000-3,000 word range. That’s relatively short, comparatively speaking. Another question: Have you ever come across other readers’ goals to read 100 books in a year and thought, how the hell do they do it? I once read an Amazon review where the reviewer boasted of being able to read several full-length novels in a day and that they did so regularly. Initially, I was incredulous, but the review was so well written and so honest that I afterwards took the reviewers claim as fact rather than boast. There also is no question that there are people out there who ingest written materials on a vast scale. I thought I’d give it a shot. I decided to see what it would be like to read a book a day over the course of several days. Here’s what happened.
Now, before I really get going, I want to say that speed-reading, as pedaled on late night television, certain apps available to smart phone users, and trashy talk shows, is not real. Speed reading is defined as reading upwards of 600 or 700 words. There are some ridiculous claims out there that are all bunk. Some have claimed to be able to read and comprehend 3,000 words per minute. This is total crap. Or, if it’s not, that person’s a genius, has a unique ability, and they possess a skill that not everyone will acquire. That being said, anyone can learn to read and comprehend faster than they currently do. It first takes an understanding of how we read so that we may improve how fast we read.
When you factor out the amount of time spent thinking through complex and unfamiliar concepts—a rarity when people read for pleasure—reading is an appallingly mechanical process. You look at a word or several words. This is called a “fixation,” and it takes about .25 seconds on average. You move your eye to the next word or group of words. This is called a “saccade,” and it takes up to about .1 seconds on average. After this is repeated once or twice, you pause to comprehend the phrase you just looked at. That takes roughly 0.3 to 0.5 seconds on average. Add all these fixations and saccades and comprehension pauses together and you end up with about 95 percent of all college-level readers reading between 200 and 400 words per minute.
Note that the way in which research shows our eyes move when we read; the eyes do not generally perceive one word, then move to the right (if we are reading in English) to the next word and so on and so forth. Eye pattern movement, when reading, scans; that is to say, we read in chunks, and our eyes are looking at more than one part of the page, more than one word, or even more than one line at any given moment. Sometimes a reader will even backpedal to read or perceive some material more than once. Readers do this unconsciously; it’s simply how it works. Moreover, in lab studies, researchers found that almost no one reads and retains knowledge at a clip of more than 600 words per minute. This seems to be the upper end of how fast anyone can read. How do they know this? By presenting subjects with complex and condensed information that their brains need to work to understand. In other words, there comes a point at which understanding stops and we are simply visualizing—“reading”—the words on the page. This pace of reading is equivalent to watching cars on a highway. We can count them, we may even notice their color, but finer details such as who is driving, what the plate numbers are or how many passengers are being transported go unnoticed. The faster we read, the less we notice. It’s true for pretty much everyone. So, for someone who reads in the 200-400 word per minute range, that is about as fast as anyone read and comprehends the material. So, what’s it like to read at a much, much faster clip? Here’s what I learned reading three books in three days.
“I don’t read for pleasure nearly as often as I would like, so this was a real treat. Most of my reading, especially during the school year, is academic. This means denser, often abstract, theoretical materials that incorporate a wealth of research and idiosyncratic language particular to my field. Phrases and terms such as “deconstructing the binary”, “hermeneutical”, “simulacrum”, “mimesis”, “denouement”, “synecdoche”, “heteroglossia”, etc. It’s nearly impossible to read this material quickly and retain any kind of knowledge. In this case, however, I wasn’t reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Bakhtin’s theory of spectacle, or Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I read the first two books of Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series, Prodigal Son and City of Night, and finished off my three-day spree with Nick Cutter’s The Troop. (My God! Cutter is amazing. If you’re looking for a good horror, Cutter may be one of the best in the ‘biz’.) I started a fourth book on a fourth day, then dropped it because it was disappointing. With all due respect to Cutter and Koontz, the vocabulary in those texts is not very challenging and my brain didn’t have to work very hard to understand new or unique ideas and concepts. Also, as writers of horror, that’s not really what they’re aiming for. Their audience is much different than the literary critic who specialized in 17th or 18th century British Literature. In Koontz’s series, dialogue dominates a ton of some very short chapters, so there’s lots of blank space throughout the text. Dialogue generally takes up less space, unless the character is soliloquizing, and short chapters means less information to deal with in shorter spans of time. My brain was able to process the information it had ingested from the chapter much more quickly and frequently than reading, say, Shakespeare or Milton. I was forced to read Cutter somewhat more slowly. While both are gifted story-tellers, Cutter the more eloquent writer with a style that favors narration, description and definition to make his point. His chapters also contain more material than Koontz’s. This means that while I was able to blitz through a Koontz novel in probably four or five hours (a rough, non-consecutive estimate), I simply wasn’t able to read Cutter at the same pace. The slightly more dense and verbose nature of Cutter’s prose meant that if I wanted to take in more of the novel, I was going to have to slow down. Readers who read at rapid clips are not reading complex essays with lots of ideas unfamiliar to them. More likely than not, readers who read at such a prodigious clip read the same type of material all the time. Or enough of it that they ideas they encounter in their reading are no longer foreign to them allowing them to breeze through it.
Reading a book a day also means readers have to read consciously and with effort. I use these terms to mean the opposite of reading carefully, where I define carefully as reading every word on every page. The article I referred to above highlights the fact that our eyes scan when we read, and they don’t necessarily scan in an orderly fashion. Try this experiment: close one of your eyes, put your pointer finger over that closed eye, on the pupil if you can, and now with your open eye read the words on this page. Can you feel your eye jolting around like that? We don’t read in straight lines, nor do our eyes perceive words on the page individually or in a single smooth movement in one direction left to right then top to bottom. To read quickly, however, we must make a conscious effort to do precisely this. We must not back-scan, go back over material they’ve already read, which is the way our eyes sometimes unconsciously work when we read without thinking about the act of reading. We must make a conscious attempt to read lines from left to right, top to bottom and not worry about running back over material a second time. We must brave the unknown and move headlong into the future of the book. To read quickly: move forward at all costs: resist the urge to backscan: move more quickly when you encounter material you are already familiar with. And, practice. This. Takes. Practice. Huffington Post has a pretty interesting article on this.
Time is also a factor. To read a lot we have to put time aside to sit and read. Those who regularly read this blog know that I teach at the college/university level for a living. This is significant for several reasons. First, outside of my employer determining my teaching schedule, I am free to construct the rest of my day. I choose my office hours, when to come and go and what time of day I will perform my research or conduct grading and prepping for my courses. Also, during the intersessions (like now) and over Summer, and especially when the kids are in school, I am almost free to read as I please. It’s true that I still have professional and family obligations to meet, such as preparing and turning in syllabi, answering emails from the school and colleagues, keeping up with the blog, bringing the kids to and from school, doing the laundry, the shopping, the cooking, making some attempt at cleaning, etc., the truth is that much of this can be done on a schedule of my own construct. Contrast this with someone who works a traditional nine-to-five. When one must be in the office at nine o’clock, one must be in the office at nine o’clock. Having the freedom to choose when I will hold office hours or grade student essays allows me the flexibility to work reading into my day (almost) whenever I choose.
However, that does not mean readers must curl up on the couch with a book, cup of tea at their side, fire roaring, reading until blood flows freely from their eyes. Personally, I am almost completely incapable of being sedentary for more than thirty or forty minutes; my attention span simply does not allow for that. Therefore, I carry a book with me everywhere I go: dropping the kids off to school or picking them up—you never know when you are going to be stuck in a line of cars or running a few minutes early. I read in Doctors’ offices; I read in supermarket check-out lines; I read in the drive-thru at the bank; I read on the toilet—don’t we all? I read at the registry of motor vehicles; I will occasionally read walking to my office from the university parking lot; I read at lunch; I read whenever my wife does the driving, anywhere; if audiobooks may be considered reading I listen to them in the car, where I spend several hours a day on average. A book is always on or near my person. It’s amazing how many opportunities people may find to read if a book is always on hand. Quartz calculated in a recent article that if smart phone users swapped the time they spend staring at their smart phones for time staring at books they could read on average 200 books per year. The fact is, almost everyone possesses the ability to read–alot–but many of us choose not to.
Reading quickly and prodigiously is also a learned skill. If you don’t read a lot, frequently, you will never get better at it. The same goes for listening to books on tape. You can only read (in this case listen) and process material so efficiently at certain speeds. True, readers can increase that rate at which they consume and process data over time, but only up to a certain point. Studies show that we can process spoken words only at about the same rate we can read: roughly 300 words per minute. Now, I personally listen to audiobooks at a speed of 1.6 or 1.65 the “normal” (recorded) speed. It took me several months of listening to audio books, slowly increasing the playback speed over time to achieve listening at that rate and still get something out of it; I’m definitely better at it, but there’s no way I’m remembering everything I’m “reading”. Also, I tend to listen to books that I probably wouldn’t take the time to sit down and read; or books that are massive that I know will frustrate me just sitting there. I love biographies on audio, for instance. The point is that reading, just like writing, or playing sports, or virtually any other acquired skill, is just that, a skill. The more you perform that activity and work to become better at it, the better you will get. One complaint I often here from my students is that they feel that they are not good or strong writers. When I ask them how much they writer, they say almost never. Well…
Reading that much in that span of time was immensely gratifying. It gave me a total sense of accomplishment. It’s like the feeling you get when you finally power through the last bite of the three pounds of fries that came with that burger challenge, or that pancake challenge where you have to eat an entire box of Bisquick: bursting at the seams! But with knowledge, accomplishment, and a sense of motivation and empowerment that now, finally, I am able to join the ranks of the prestigious few on the wall and get my t-shirt. Ahem, there was no t-shirt, but I did feel super accomplished.
It doesn’t take a genius or even a very educated person to read a book a day every day. Almost anyone can do it. Reading a book a day definitely takes time and skill. It requires light reading of the pulp or popular variety, and not the dense philosophical tomes or treatises of historical or “academic” importance. Try reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch in a single sitting or the magnum opus of the Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. This posthumously published novel on which he worked for some twenty or thirty years before his death meanders between two central timelines spanning 1930’s Russia and ancient Jerusalem. The names alone are enough to boggle the mind. At times, characters go variously by their given name, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Berlioz, their last name, Berlioz, or even the diminutive, “Misha”. All the same character. Or Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyrov, who also goes by his middle name or even Homeless, a pseudonym under which his character publishes his poetry. There are other examples. I won’t bore you here. While this pedantic talent takes time and practice to master, it is, nonetheless, a skill worth mastering.
What’s your record for books in a given period? What do you like to read for fun? Do you have a genre you prefer? Hit me up and let me know. And don’t forget to get out there.