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Confession of a slow reader

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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49 Comments

Olivia • December 15, 2008 at 9:15 am

I don’t know how fast a reader I am compared to other people, but it can take me a long time to read a book, too. I usually just read a few pages before going to sleep and don’t worry about finishing quickly. I think it took me close to six months to read “War and Peace”.

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jkd • December 15, 2008 at 9:27 am

35-50 pages an hour sounds like a decent pace; reading is supposed to be relaxing and fun, not a race to the finish. I’m so glad that I commute on public transportation; that affords me a minimum of 90 minutes of reading time per day. I also read over lunch and before bed. But I tend to keep the books under 500 pp, because they get heavy to carry around in my bag all day. Hence the copy of The Golden Notebook gathering dust on my shelf.

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Susan • December 15, 2008 at 10:15 am

It took me four years from the time I bought Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel in 2004, until I actually started reading it in 2008. I’d look at the bulky book and then grab a Thursday Next novel instead (very excellent books, btw). Once I started reading Johnathan Strange… however, I almost didn’t finish it, twice. It took awhile to get into.

But if you do get into it, a weird thing happens…The Man With the Thistledown Hair gets into your head and won’t leave you alone. The passages with him are alone worth the read. And the chapters with Vinculus. And the Cat Lady chapter – GAH!!! Mr. Norrell is a twit and annoyed the bejeesus out of me…very well drawn character;) Plus, Susanna Clarke’s verbal pictures exquisite.

Love your blog and your writing!

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carol • December 15, 2008 at 10:28 am

I know it’s cheating but books on CD have been my salvation!!!

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MizFit • December 15, 2008 at 10:37 am

my dream is to spend a whole weekend with a few books.

I just finished a GREAT ONE last night but it took me forever.

i wasnt this slow before our daughter but now Im p-l-o-d-d-i-n-g.

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PastaQueen • December 15, 2008 at 10:42 am

@carol – I’ve tried those, but sometimes my mind wonders. Sometimes the audio books are abridged, like Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope.” I love hearing his voice reading to me, but I want the whole book!

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Just_Kelly • December 15, 2008 at 10:44 am

I’m a quick reader but a “velcro” learner. Things don’t stick with me for very long. I have the attention span of a nat too which doesn’t help.

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Amy • December 15, 2008 at 10:50 am

I listen to audio books all the time. When I am driving, walking, working out, playing solitaire on the computer, and if it’s an exceptionally good story I will finish it in bed before I go to sleep. I love love love them. I get them from http://www.audible.com. It’s great because I have learned how to pronounce the words properly instead of trying to sound them out.

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Lisa • December 15, 2008 at 10:55 am

Honestly, I think you’re too hard on yourself–I think your pace is probably the same as most people. I’m not clear where you got the idea that you’re abnormally slow; if it’s just comparing yourself to your speedreading friend(s), she’s the one who’s atypical. I read at about the same pace, and I read a lot. I guess the trick is expecting that it’ll take you a week or two to read a book, in bits every day. I probably read about an hour a day at the same pace you do, and get through about 25 books or so a year.

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Quix • December 15, 2008 at 11:24 am

I DEVOURED books when I was a kid (I remember doing a book report on Gone With The Wind as a 7th grader), but college sorta killed the desire to read EVER AGAIN. My problem is I have a goldfish brain and not much free time, so unless I have a good long chunk of time to get into the book at first (and it has to really grab me), I forget what happened, then resolve to restart the book, then give up on reading altogether. I read about 1 book every year or so, if that. I did just finish a book because I was able to get through the first half on a cruise, and I had to know how it ended. :)

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Jen • December 15, 2008 at 11:40 am

I agree with what Lisa said. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

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G.G. • December 15, 2008 at 11:43 am

Sounds to me like you’re a better than average reader, honestly. And I have some of the same issues as you sometimes, even though I read very fast and have a literature degree. Sometimes it’s not the reader’s fault, too–if you’re bored or impatient with a book, it might be because it’s a bad book (or poorly written). Sometimes I think the reader/author relationship is like other interpersonal relationships–you may hear tons of great stuff about a book, but you and the book just don’t click. (And I’m using “you” as a general “you,” not referring to you specifically.)

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EG • December 15, 2008 at 11:44 am

Is that slow reading, or just normal reading? Sounds kind of normal to me.

Sometimes I start hearing the words outloud in my head like you; that drives me CRAZY. I have to just stop reading for a while at that point.

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Al • December 15, 2008 at 11:48 am

I have the opposite problem. I’m a very fast reader — I read the last HP book in 6 hours — and it makes it really difficult for me to enjoy poetry or writers like Hemingway or Steinbeck. Sparse sentences get jammed together in my head. I finally figured out the key to enjoying them was reading slower after I read Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain. Them cowboys don’t talk as fast in the movie!

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Nellig • December 15, 2008 at 11:59 am

As Amy said, audio books are the obvious answer. Audible has Johnathan Strange and tons more.

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maxie • December 15, 2008 at 12:13 pm

I’m with G.G. And, 7-8 hours for an “average” sized book is pretty standard I think. Read for pleasure, not because you think you should finish in a set amount of time.

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s • December 15, 2008 at 12:24 pm

i take 7-8 hours to read a 350 page book as well.

and can i just say that BABYSITTER’S CLUB is the best series ever?!?!?!!?1

(oh, wait. it’s not?! darn.)

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Leigh Anne • December 15, 2008 at 12:41 pm

I love that you wrote about this today. I was just talking with a friend about the same topic. I am a fast reader and fully admit that what allows me to read so quickly is that I will often skip whole paragraphs if I deem it unnecessary to the plot as a whole. I was never one to really fully enjoy a long wordy description of the countryside :)

But who’s to say one way of reading is better than another? As long as the book is enjoyed I think we all win.

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Katharine • December 15, 2008 at 12:52 pm

Maybe this will help you feel better, PQ: I am a book copyeditor. I read for a living. I think that I was born reading—popped out of my mother’s womb with a book in my hands. I read to live. I’m a superfast reader. Yet I haven’t read a novel in several years. I don’t have time to read for fun. I work 7 days a week, reading all the while, and I have 3 children, 2 of whom are still young enough to live at home. So when I’m off the clock, all I want is some stupid TV to wind down. I miss reading for fun. One day, I hope to be able to do it again—at whatever speed I can manage.

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Amy • December 15, 2008 at 1:18 pm

I’m a quick reader and I always have been and I can tell you that the only advantages of this ability occur when you a.) take a standardized test or b.) watch a subtitled film. Otherwise, the speed at which you read something makes no different at all as long as you enjoy reading it. Mostly the pace at which I read things means I have a ton of books in my house and not enough book shelves and my boyfriend feels like an idiot for reading more slowly, it’s nothing to write home about.

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Sue B • December 15, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Maybe the issue isn’t that you’re a slow reader but that a particular book is just not interesting to you. I know when I’m reading a great, well-written story or an autobiography with a strong voice (like Neil Simon’s memoirs) — I can’t wait to get back to it or have a hard time putting it down. A good book like a good movie — should hook you so you’re ‘in’ that world the author created. Also, it took a long time but I now stop reading a book if I don’t like it — I use to feel guilty if I didn’t finish a book once I started it but sometimes it’s better to move on — life is just too short!

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John Evans • December 15, 2008 at 1:38 pm

I am conducting an online survey into reading speed and “visual persistence”. Please visit this site – http://www.gts-training.co.uk/visual-persistence.htm – take the simple speed test, and fill in a survey form. Thanks John Evans

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Kayla • December 15, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Being a fast reader isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, yes, you get done faster, but really, I skip a lot of words, sometimes whole paragraphs if nothing in it captures my attention. Since I’ve been reading aloud to my children I’ve noticed the language, the phrasing, the word-pictures a lot more than when I speed along reading to myself. Slow isn’t necessarily bad, I read all three Lord of the Ring books to my son – yes, it took months, but it was all quality time, and well worth it. Slow – Fast – who cares, just READ!!

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Thumper • December 15, 2008 at 2:46 pm

As a writer…I like that you read slowly. You take the time to READ and not just glaze over the words. I’m willing to bet you see things in a story that otehrs miss because they’re reading jjust fast enough that everything doesn’t stick. I’m guilty of that…I sometimes have to go back and re-read something because I missed a tiny thing that turned out to be important to a story later in the book. Then I feel bad because I *know* the writer intended it to be a little brasys nugget that later turns out to be gold.

Just enjoy what you read…doesn’t matter how long it takes.

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K • December 15, 2008 at 3:58 pm

Don’t beat yourself up for subvocalising – I do it too, and I’m a fast reader.

I’m sure you read more thoroughly than I do. If I really love a new novel, I will read it twice straight through – once for the plot, turning the pages as fast as I can, and once for the details. I’m sure your one reading is more efficient.

I actually enjoy the second reading more, because I’m not gasping for a fix of plot resolution. I can slow down and enjoy the journey. I haven’t yet resorted to my mum’s solution, which is to read the first few chapters and then skip straight to the end, so she can enjoy the rest of the book without any suspense as to the ending. In the past I didn’t understand how she could bear to do this, but I do now…

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Matt • December 15, 2008 at 4:19 pm

I’ve got the same problem, and it’s exacerbated by two things:

1 – I can’t stand to leave a story unfinished

2 – I like books of an epic length

If the book is suitably low-level (such as the Robotech novelizations were, back in the late 90s) I can tear through it in an afternoon. But the more dense a book gets, the more I slow down – for example, Atlas Shrugged took me almost a month to read. However the thing that really bugs me about being a slow reader is not that it makes it hard to finish a book, it’s that I get impatient to start the next book. The pace at which I read actually does a great job of letting me get involved in the story, of being absorbed by the mental imagery. I don’t know if I’d be able to maintain that kind of engrossing feeling if I read faster.

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Ang • December 15, 2008 at 4:58 pm

I am totally a slow reader. I didn’t realize it until a friend of mine told me how she went to a private elementary school where she learned to read by speedreading. She can’t slow down. It’s really sad because she doesn’t enjoy poetry.

When I read, I hear the words in my head as if someone were reading it. I have been a good reader since childhood–always testing well in the subject. My mom regularly took me to check books out of the library and bought me books from the scholastic book club catalog.

I would like to read faster when I have a lot of information to get through but at least recreational reading is always enjoyable.

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kb • December 15, 2008 at 4:59 pm

I agree with the don’t beat yourself up. I’m a fast reader, and I can’t find books to keep me occupied for a whole trip unless my suitcase is hugely heavy. Books on tape-or web videos/audio commentaries tend to make me want to rip my hair out “just give me the info already, I could have read it 3 times by this point” is the way I usually feel. but the subtitle thing is right-is anyone clocking you? I doubt it.

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p. potter • December 15, 2008 at 5:17 pm

I totally laughed at the Babysitters Club reference. I used to always skip the part where they explained Kristy’s Great Idea and how Malory and Jessie were younger than everyone else. I know, Ann M. Martin, I read the entire series. (Thanks to you and your ghostwriters!)

That said, to this day I still feel like it’s cheating when when I skip over things in a book that seem unimportant/don’t interest me. Catholic guilt?

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Laci • December 15, 2008 at 6:05 pm

You’re not a slow reader, you are a fast thinker. You don’t just read and regurgitate what your read. You think about it. You relate to it. You feel the words. You don’t cheat the authors. Speed reading is like putting a bit of cheesecake into a blender and gulping it. You miss all of the flavor and enjoyment, but you still get the calories. Don’t put books in the blender!

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Deb • December 15, 2008 at 6:21 pm

Hi, PQ. I love how you said that when you listen to audiobooks, your mind “wonders” (instead of “wanders”). A lovable little error from lovable little you!

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PurpleGirl • December 15, 2008 at 6:29 pm

That doesn’t seem to me like a slow reading pace at all. I know people who struggle to get through 20 pages in an hour.

Now I want to time myself, I’ve actually never done that before. Yes, I am a big nerd.

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anji • December 15, 2008 at 7:22 pm

After I went back to school, I found reading to be a chore. I have a hard time reading any book… also when I was dealing with my high-stress, I felt I was very ADHD with my thought processes… I couldn’t focus on anything… I am only five years later, starting ot somewhat enjoy reading again.

I used to churn out books in highschool that were over 1000 pages long…. in less than two days. Now? That’d probably take me a year, unless I was *really* into it!

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Rachael • December 15, 2008 at 7:28 pm

It’s not a race! You don’t have to read a book all in one sitting!

This is actually a reminder for msyelf, as well. :-) I am a fast reader, but I have a hard time putting a book down once I start. I get obsessed with finishing it. I’ve been reading for about 1/2 an hour before bed for the last three months, and even though it tookes me a week or two to finish a book, it’s so relaxing. I am reading the Sue Grafton alphabet mystery series. I started with A in July and am now on T, so that’s still a lot of reading.

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Jen • December 15, 2008 at 9:13 pm

I “read” that book. Actually I borrowed it on CD from my library. I used to have a 35 minute commute each way and Audiobooks were a great way to pass the time. I also put them on my iPod and listen to them when I exercise. If you don’t have the time to read then Audiobooks are the way to go.

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emi • December 15, 2008 at 11:17 pm

I read really, really fast – I never learned to speedread & I don’t do it on purpose, but I read 60-100 pages an hour for most books – slower for a textbook, faster for something like Harry Potter.

It’s super awesome for law school (and school in general), but it actually kind of sucks for pleasure reading. Other people get to spend 12 hours enjoying the first read of a novel, and I only get 6 (which is probably why I used to reread books so often as a kid – no time now). I like that I can read fast, but I’m also kind of jealous of people who are a little slower.

I definitely don’t read by hearing each word in my head – I see the “shape” of the word and basically comprehend a sentence all at one. If that makes any sense at all.

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madeline • December 16, 2008 at 3:05 am

I find I go in cycles. Sometimes I can’t get enough and want to read everything (and at those times I can read fairly quickly), but other times I want nothing to do with books and look for other things to occupy my down time like sudoku. I also find I read fiction much faster than non-fiction (but I know other people who are the opposite). It took me 6 months to read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” and now I don’t want to even look at a book. When I was in university and I had to read plays (especially Shakespeare) I found that I totally got it when I listened to the audio version while following along with the text itself. It took longer than just sitting down to read, but at least I really understood and it stuck. I imagine your headache may not help out much in the reading department either.

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fd • December 16, 2008 at 7:39 am

me too me too.

however, don’t let the harry potter doorstop get to you. as you yourself said, kid’s books are easier. :-) and they happen to buck the trend generally in terms of getting sucked into them etc.

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Mary Jean • December 16, 2008 at 8:04 am

I used to work with someone who always bragged about how many books she read in a week. When we exchanged books, she’d always keep asking aren’t you done yet? Yeesh! Read for enjoyment not to keep up with someone else. As long as I can keep the plot straight in my head, I do OK. I read about a book a month but I’m happy to find a random half hour in which to sit and read. It’s what I do to “cheat” on my calendar. That and books on CD are the best because I can listen to them when I’m doing anything.

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Jen • December 16, 2008 at 11:54 am

I feel your pain. The only time I have to pick up a book is right before bed. I usually pass out about 5 pages in. I think *your* book was the quickest one I’ve read lately, and it still took me a couple of weeks. I used to be voracious when I was younger.

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Bella • December 16, 2008 at 2:07 pm

As a high school English teacher, I can tell you that it makes no difference how fast or slowly you read. All that matters is that you understand what you’re reading.

I

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PastaQueen • December 16, 2008 at 2:16 pm

@Bella – And that you finish it. There were, um, some books I never finished reading in college honors class. A lot of books. Faked my way through it anyway though.

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Eliz • December 16, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Wow! I’m stunned because it seems as though you lifted that post directly from my head. I completely relate.

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susan • December 16, 2008 at 6:29 pm

I don’t think that seems too slow. Have you ever tried books on tape? You can download them right to your Ipod and listen at the gym. I get sucked in and actually want to stay on the treadmill until the chapter is finished. Don’t be so hard on yourself. If you want a quick read, seriously, read “The Paper Bag Christmas.” It’s very short and heartfelt.

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Liz • December 16, 2008 at 8:35 pm

Wow PQ – you introduced me to a new term: subvocalize. It has never ocurred to me that there is any way to read in my head that didn’t include mentally hearing each word pronounced. I’ve tried reading faster, and I can actually read faster, but inevitably I lose some of the words and meanings because I don’t have time to mentally annunciate each word.

I’ve never minded or anything – I am just thankful that I enjoy reading so much. Knowing how to read well, and enjoying it opens up worlds of information and I enjoy that.

And, I love Harry Potter. I have all 7 and have read them all cover to cover. :)

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Laura • December 17, 2008 at 1:10 am

lol, why on earth would you want to read an entire book in one night? That doesn’t sound very enjoyable. While I’ve done it on a few occasions, it wasn’t done over the course of a few hours, but involved staying up into the wee hours of the morning because I couldn’t sleep until I knew how it ended.

I prefer taking my time with a novel, each new book a relationship that develops over time. I might read 100 or so pages a day, depending on the size of the font and page.

It took me 3 days to devour your lovely book.

Enjoy reading! It’s not a race. :)

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Rebecca • December 17, 2008 at 4:10 pm

I’m sure enjoying this discussion. I think I’m a slow reader, also, but am finding encouragement here to read for pleasure! I’ve also been thinking lately that I eat too quickly, and don’t enjoy the food as much as I could. These are kind of parallels, no?

I find I don’t care for very long, dense books, because I’m not sure I want to make the time investment (but I have read the entire HP series…they’re not too difficult). Besides quicker, “lighter” books, my solution is short stories. I usually buy the “Best American Short Stories (year)” (some of those still take two nights bedtime reading), and even subscribe to a short story magazine.

Still, I dream of a “reading weekend” with no distractions…including this computer!

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Charlie Hills • December 17, 2008 at 10:08 pm

Speaking of books, I just happened to run across a review of mine. And guess what: your book got a free ride at the end of the review!

Hopefully this pastes:

http://www.examiner.com/x-562-Book-Examiner~y2008m11d7-Review-of-Why-Your-Last-Diet-Failed-You-And-How-This-Book-Wont-Help-You-On-Your-Next-One

I’m a slow reader too. On the one hand, there’s the small time I get to devote to it. But I’m almost always reading several books at once, which tends to slow things down too.

Charlie

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NJ • February 14, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Bwah! I feel your pain!

I’m a medical student, and a VERY SLOW READER. So everyday I go home and look at the mountain of reading I have to do, and go, “Shit. This is never going to happen.”

And, of course, there is the inevitable falling behind in reading, which makes a person even less motivated when looking at the giant stack of notes.

I always tell myself that the speed at which I read has nothing to do with my comprehension. In fact, because I subvocalize, I think I have better retention that a great many of my colleagues. I remember books almost as conversations, which are a hell of a lot harder to forget than blips on a page.

Anyway, thanks for posting. It was nice to know I’m not the only person with this issue.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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