December 15, 2008 at 9:04 am
I am a slow reader.
You would not have guessed this in 2nd grade when I was the only student to read 50 books in our annual reading contest. If I only read kids books, my slow reading wouldn’t be a problem, but it takes me forever to read adult books. Depending on the layout, how many words are on a page, and the complexity of the prose, I can read about 35-50 pages an hour. A 350-page book takes at least a 7-8 hour investment of time for me. This sometimes makes me feel disabled, particularly when I have a friend who can read a Baby-Sitter’s Club book in less than an hour and coherently relate the plot afterwards. She doesn’t even skip the part where they explain where Kid Kits are and how weird it is that Claudia eats lots of junk food but never gets fat or has pimples.
I only have about 2-3 hours of free time in a day, if you account for the time I spend cooking, exercising, paying bills, and doing laundry. That’s more than a lot of people, I know, but not enough to read a book a night. I have more time on the weekends, but I also go to the grocery, see movies, watch TV, visit friends, and write blog entries. Cramming in the time to read a whole book is tough. What this means is that I have piles of books that I have started and never finished. I have an entire shelf dedicated to books I have checked out from the library and would like to someday read, but probably never will. When I buy a book I wish I could just buy the knowledge inside of it and download it into my head. If it’s a book read for pleasure, I wish I could smoosh the time it took to experience that pleasure into a more reasonable time frame. One reason I like movies is that it takes everyone the same amount of time to consume them. We’re all on equal footing, whereas my speedreading friend said she can finish some books faster than it takes to watch the movie version.
It’s bad for me because one of the ways to become a better writer is to read, read, read. You observe what people do right and try to imitate it in your own style. You observe what people do wrong and try to never repeat their mistakes. Someone who writes as frequently as I do should be reading a lot more. Otherwise I’m limiting my ability to become a better writer.
My slow reading ability has also led to embarrassing situations. There have been two times where I have had the opportunity to talk with authors and it has become obvious that I have not finished reading their books. Both times I tried to finish the book quickly, but I couldn’t find the time, and thus felt like a disrespectful asshole upon our meeting.
There are some books I know I will never read because they are just too damn long. I’ve heard great reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susannah Clarke, but it’s 800 pages long. I’ve been tempted to buy it at the half-price bookstore, but I know I would never crack the spine and instead use it to bludgeon insects. I’m glad I never got into the Harry Potter books because there is no way I would have been able to read the final book before someone spoiled it for me. Those books just kept getting longer and longer.
I think the main reason I read so slowly is that I subvocalize, which means I say the words to myself in my head as I’m reading. In grade school, we always read books aloud in a group. At home one night my mother grabbed the rules for a new board game out of the box and said, “Let me read the instructions.” I waited and waited for her to start reading them aloud and finally asked, “When are you going to start reading?” She answered, “I’m reading them in my head,” she said.
I was blown away.
People could read silently in their heads? That was awesome! I started doing it too, but I read in my head at only a slightly faster speed than I did aloud. I’ve looked into learning speedreading, but I’m not sure I want to. Even though I hate that I read so slowly, I like savoring the language in my head. I like making sure I read every sentence the author has placed there. I like savoring books in a way I’ve never been able to savor a meal. I’ve always been a fast eater.
I’m also a slow reader because my brain gets tired after several hours of reading. I feel the mental weight of processing so much language and have to take a break. My arm gets sore or my eyes get tired and I need to step away. If a book is particularly thought-provoking it makes me think of ways it relates to my life or provokes me to start writing blog entries in my head. Then I find myself staring at a page that I haven’t been reading for a minute or two because my brain has spun off on its own.
So, I’m a slow reader. That’s why I don’t read as many books as I want to and why I cannot keep up with as many blogs as I’d like and why I don’t follow too many people Twitter. There is only so much I can consume and I have to be picky. Hopefully the authors don’t mind. If it takes you years to write a book, at least I can take several days to read it.
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