Reading Speeds

How many different speeds can you read at? You browse a website, skim a newspaper, scan the back of a cereal box, glance at a signpost or leaf through a magazine. All these idiomatic phrases refer to reading quickly, but far fewer terms for reading slowly spring to mind. ‘Peruse’ can refer to quick and slow reading, but usually refers to the former in modern usage. If I take longer over a text, then the term I use risks making it sound like hard labour: I ‘work through’ a poem, or ‘study’ or ‘scrutinize’ it.

I’ve been asked before whether studying English means that I can read super-fast. My studies have helped me absorb information more quickly than I once could, but I’ve also got a lot better at reading more slowly. I’ve improved my focus, not just my speed. An English teacher once told my class that you could read more quickly if you ‘turned off your mental voice’. I found it strange that he didn’t mention anything about why the ‘mental voice’ is also useful, and why it’s good to ‘listen’ to writing. There is definitely a practical value in being able to pick up new information quickly, but education isn’t just about learning as much as possible in the shortest time possible.

When I was younger I read about an autistic savant (it may have been Kim Peek, the inspiration for the film Rain Man) who could read through Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in an outrageously short time and remember every detail. I was impressed by this ability, but also felt that you would miss something even if you could recall all the factual information. Literary appreciation demands considered, concentrated attention to words. It requires an ability to allow words to resonate with those around them. You can read at a speed which allows words to echo in your mind. There are many different ways of reading a text. You could read a sonnet for an hour and keep having new thoughts, or race through Shakespeare’s Sonnets one-a-minute but stay clear of the poems’ emotional depths. Examination curricula often reward the second method more than the first.

A Cambridge University outreach website for English called Converse has a First World War Poetry Reader where you can set your reading speed for various poems (including numerous poets I’d not come across before, like Eva Dobell and Sybil Brinstowe). You use a slider to set the reading speed from slow to fast. The exercise makes you stop and think and weigh up the meaning of individual words and images. There’s clearly a great need for assimilating and processing information quickly, but this isn’t something new—there has been ‘Too Much to Know‘ for centuries (to quote the title of a book on early modern information management I just finished reading). It’s equally important to know how to analyse (a word which literally means ‘break down’), deliberate, disambiguate and appreciate speech and writing. English literature has not just taught me to read more quickly; it’s taught me a spectrum of different reading practices.


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