Speed Reading

30 Aug

I’ve always been interested in speed reading. Partially because I’m an impatient person. Not in the sense that I get grumpy if it takes me time to read a book, but I get impatient because I look at my shelves, and at the world, and see how many things there are for me to read and dispair at ever reading it all.

I’m a pretty fast reader. I have no idea how fast, I don’t know that there’s a test for that (like there’s a test that tells me my words-per-minute typing speed). But I read quickly, I read three or four books at once and keep them all seperate in my head, and I retain most of what I read, particularly in non-fiction (this is a Very Good Thing now that I’ve gone back to school).

But still. Speed reading.

I like the idea. I love the idea of sitting down in the afternoon and powering through a book on Roman architecture and actually remembering what I read. My interest in speed reading was brought back to the surface, a couple days back, when my wife mentioned that the University has a course in speed reading. I was debating taking it, next semester.

But the big question that lingers in my head is: Is speed reading even remotely a good idea for fiction? And I tend to think not. (But it’s an unqualified opinion because I don’t speed read fiction, or know anyone who does, so it’s just hypothetical). To my way of thinking, it would break the rhythm and the structure of the story, maybe. And if you speed read, you might not get it all. And there are different levels of fiction. If I speed read a Clive Cussler novel (why? Why am I reading Clive Cussler? Am I not sleeping well?), then that’s different from speed reading Gene Wolfe, or Charles Dickens, that’s different from speed-reading Cervantes or Harry Stephen Keeler, just to throw out some authors with wildly different levels of writing and material.

I’m still uncertain. But this morning I was doing some halfhearted research on Google about it. And Wikipedia has a useful article on speed reading which discourages me away from it. It had one particular quote, though…

Speed reading courses and books take a variety of approaches to the concept of reading comprehension. Some courses and books claim that good comprehension is essential to speed reading, and that comprehension will improve with speed reading. Special non-standardized reading comprehension questionnaires are provided in order to convince the reader of the effects of the program. Some courses advise that while comprehension is important, it should not be measured or promoted. Speed reading courses variously claim that not all information in text needs to be covered while speed reading

The bolding is my own.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’m sitting here going “What the hell is the point of reading if not to comprehend, and cover all the information!?” If I read a book on Rome, I may have “finished” the book, but if I haven’t comprehended it and gathered information from it, then all I’ve done is flip the pages really fast. And all THAT accomplishes is me hoping someone’s tucked a dollar bill between two pages, and now I’ve got some money.

And fiction. The Wikipedia article mentions something like a 50% retention and comprehension level. If I retain 50% of a Gene Wolfe novel, I am in pretty serious trouble. Hell, you can read a good Wolfe novel three or four times and you still won’t comprehend everything in there. And if you’re losing chunks of the book while reading quickly through it…well. It would be like trying to read it after it’s gone through a paper shredder and some of it’s been thrown away already.


So, I’m not against speed-reading. It’s just Wikipedia, after all, that occasional bastion of misinformation, mountains, and molehills. And I bet there are grades of speed reading. I bet there are techniques with which to accelerate my own reading, which would be nice, without venturing into the land of bona-fide speed reading, where I’m losing material.

(If I retained it all, though, then meeting the claimed number of reading 10,000 words a minute just sounds astonishing and fantastic. If I retained all that, I could get through so many books. That would be so cool. But I am supremely doubtful.)


Posted by on August 30, 2008 in Uncategorized


7 responses to “Speed Reading

  1. Pete Tzinski

    August 30, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Although… (now I’m commenting to myself as I argue further)…come to think of it, the focus on retention and being able to repeat the material back ISN’T something to worry about.

    You don’t remember every single individual scene of a good novel you read. Not even novels you’ve read dozens of times. You remember them as you re-read them, and you remember memorable scenes (duh), and you remember the book. You remember the story, the characters, the shape of thing. Well, I do.

    So really, if I read a book very fast and come away specifically remembering some particularly vibrant scenes, remembering the story and some bits of dialogue…this is on par with what I come away remembering anyway.

    AND…being able to repeat the information back to someone else is a poor basis for anything, because there’s piles of stuff I know that, because I haven’t quantified it into words (that takes me longer than learning something, every time) I can’t repeat it back anyway.

    So really, speed reading and accelerated reading CAN apply to things like fiction, and does sort of justify in my mind.

    I went to this site, while clicking around:

    And I took their scoring test. I don’t know how accurate or useful it is, but I came away with a reading level of 400+ words per minute, with a comprehension of 100%. For whatever that’s worth. Go take it! Tell me what you get. I’m curious now.

    I’m also Having A Big Idea.

  2. tjwriter

    September 4, 2008 at 10:16 am

    I’ll have to take that test later. I love reading, and I read very quickly it seems. Fast enough to impress my mom, which I had no idea of until my dad said something one day. My mom reads and she used to write. In fact, until a little accident (me) came along, she was going to school for journalism. So she’s always proofed and critted me with no mercy, but in a helpful way. Both of my parents read, so I was surprised when I learned that my speed impresses her.

    Enough of my rambling. You can go back to your conversation with yourself.

  3. Pete Tzinski

    September 4, 2008 at 11:41 am

    I’d rather have a conversation with you than myself. I’m terribly dull. 🙂

    What happened that impressed your mom? I remember one time, I was reading something my friend handed me. And I handed it back when I was done. “You did NOT finish that already,” he said. And when I said I had, he asked me questions about it. I answered correctly (because I still had an attention span and some memory capabilities back then) and he was amazed.

    I think being able to read fast is SUCH a terrific skill. Not least because it’s fun. And I’m beginning to think that, built properly, it can help get you through tons and tons of books. And I love that idea.

  4. tjwriter

    September 4, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    I don’t know if there was a specific event that impressed her, but rather how books that take normal people a couple of days to finsh are a light afternoon read for me. Sometimes I’ll pick up a small book at Walmart just to have something to read, but I knock them out so fast that it’s almost pointless to buy.

    Perhaps I really need to find time to go to the library or something. Of course, after number two arrives I have the distinct feeling that time for myself will become a distant memory.

  5. tjwriter

    September 12, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    I still haven’t done your speed reading thing. But I’ve been resting when I get home all this week and I forget. Plus the trying-to-become-a-sinus-infection thing makes me stupid. No, really. My brain doesn’t not function well at all when I start getting a sinus infection. It’s the main reason I like to be at home in bed instead of out in the real world making a fool of myself.

  6. TJEW

    January 8, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    I scored 177 wpm and 91% comprehension.
    Not entirely sure how that works out. I do tend to re-read sentences a lot, and if I come across a word that I’m not familiar with, I tend to try to figure out what it means before I continue. I’m almost always the last one to finish a test, and for the SATs and ACTs, I barely finished some sections. Yet my scores for the reading sections have always been well above average, and I can finish a book in a day. (ex: I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in about 26 hours)


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