The celebrated academic Harold Bloom is a lightning fast reader; blink and he’s probably turned the page – twice. In his prime he could churn through 1,000 pages an hour, which means he could have digested Jane Eyre during his lunch break and still had time to chew through half of Ulysses before returning to classes. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel like a slow, slack-jawed simian struggling in the frontal-lobe department.
The average reader snails through prose at a rate of about 250-300 words per minute, which roughly equates to about one page per minute. Bloom is surely cut from a rare cloth of reading comprehension because he whips through more than 16 pages per minute and still remembers almost everything he reads. For the rest of us, it’s not so easy. In the World Championship Speed Reading Competition the top contestants typically read around 1,000 to 2,000 words per minute, but only manage about 50% comprehension. That’s just not good enough for literature. What’s the point if you’re reading, say, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, with its panoply of characters, and you only understand 50% of the text? You wouldn’t be able to understand anything much at all.
Do people really attempt to speed read literature? If so, why? I guess, most simply, it is so a person can boast about how much they’ve read – or how often. Andrew Marr claims to have read War and Peace “at least” 15 times. Not 12 or 13, but 15. I read this and thought, well, if you took out all the passages he’s skimmed over, he’s probably only read it 10. Even so, it is a remarkable achievement. I found it difficult to concentrate on certain passages of War and Peace the first (and only) time I read it. I can’t imagine reading over those same passages 15 times and paying attention.
Most speed reading courses teach people to read the words off the page without imagining the corresponding sounds in their minds (called subvocalisation). Skim reading is slightly different; it teaches people to read the keywords in a sentence and ignore all the smaller words, creating some kind of semantic register in shorthand. Anyone who has read that other Tolstoy tome, Anna Karenina, has probably been tempted to skim read certain passages, such as Levin’s theories of Russian agrarianism. I know I was tempted, quite recently, but in my efforts to pick up the reading pace I found my attention was divided: part of my mind was thinking about Levin’s thoughts and actions, as described on the page, but an equal part of my mind was devoted to the novel process of speed/skim reading. What are the keywords? I wondered. Sometimes my mind was entirely distracted by this question, and while debating which half of a subjunctive conditional I could ignore while retaining the sense of the clause, I would speed read two or three more paragraphs without taking anything in.
There is something quite unseemly about the notion of skimming over the literary canon. In some inverted, abstract sense it reminds me of liposuction: you’re putting on intellectual weight without acquiring the mental health benefits, and there’s always a downside to cutting corners.
Did the world’s great novelists really spend years agonising over the pitch and rhythm of their sentences so some time-efficient post-modern reader could skim over the text like a political spin doctor searching for soundbites in the transcript of a ministerial speech? I don’t think so. Speed reading might be an effective tool for office documents, textbooks, and letters of unrequited love, but the prose of great literature should be savoured, should it not? Part of the joy of reading comes from “hearing” our psychic palates pronouncing the words in the mind’s ear; the imagined speech, “richly flavoured like a nut or an apple”.
Compare this classic Dickensian opening line with the skimmed version that follows, and ask yourself, is it really worth tearing through great prose like Gordon Gecko tearing through the assets of a newly acquired company?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Best times/worst times, age wisdom/foolishness, epoch belief/incredulity, season Light/Darkness, spring hope, winter despair.
Charles Dickens, the skimmed version.
Notwithstanding the aesthetic pleasure derived from reading, how well can one appreciate the nuances of character and circumstance in a novel if one is reading 10 pages per minutes sans Bloomian comprehension skills? I’m not convinced that the average person can ever learn to read at speed and contemplate at leisure. Speed reading is a bit like trying to appreciate the sights of Paris while racing through the streets at 200 kmph.
I know this is the era in which we measure internet connection speeds in fractions of seconds and thumb SMS sentiments like “gr8 2 c u”, I know this is the era of speed-living and 20-20 cricket, but I’m not convinced that we should adapt our reading habits to fit in with the speed of modern life. Rather, reading should be seen as a pleasure where time is forgotten, if only for a moment.