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January 09, 2009


Jenny Davidson

Yes, I am this kind of reader too, especially for novels - I feel like I pretty much just sweep my eyes in a vertical line down the middle of the page.

Clayton Moore

I have much the same experience. I could always read fast, but I was accidentally volunteered into an Evelyn Woods speed-reading course when I was thirteen, which taught the technique of sweeping the page diagonally from left to right. So I'm in there with a bunch of geeks and misfits who could barely read, and they tested me at something absurd like 1,200 words per minute with 90% comprehension.

I miss savoring books, though. It doesn't happen all that often these days, and it takes something really special to make me slow down and let the words simmer.


I'm amazed. Actually my webmaster and occasional critique partner reads the same way. He's terrific at catching plot problems (and solving them).

I'm afraid I've always read critically (both lines and between lines, and sometimes going back for patterns). That's my training. Of course, I don't always slow down with every book. Some require little or no analysis and move along quite happily on story (plot) alone.

Leonard T. Carruthers

That's skimming, which is a different experience from actually reading. Nothing wrong with it, although I'm not sure it's appropriate for a critic---this isn't a race after, all. But you've got balls for admitting it! Good for you.

Sarah Weinman

No, it's not skimming. Skimming is when I'm looking at a page and not absorbing the words at all, which happens when I am reading when I shouldn't (namely, when I'm tired and have been staring at a computer or in a book for double-digit hours.) Considering how many others are chiming here, the Jacket Copy blog comments and elsewhere, I'm inclined to think there's some cognitive rewiring at work.


I loved the peice -

But since you left England it's obvious you've been slacking, 462 books in a year Bah! you're slowing down, have you tried drugs?




does this work for web reading, too, or just printed on paper?


Speaking as another speed reader, if not for the Internet, I might be this bad :)

Sarah Graves

I read that way, too, especially when I am so "into" the experience that I don't perceive anything going on around me. For me it's the opposite of skimming, which is more surface-y. I also have very wide peripheral vision, so much so that I can't get eyeglass frames big enough to disappear from my sight. I wonder if there's a connection. That "sweeping down the middle of the page" thing mentioned above sounds familiar, too.

Jason Pinter

You want speed? I started reading this post this morning, and I finished it just now, a mere 7 hours and 52 minutes later. So what now, huh? Got nothing to say? Thought so.

Don Black

There's something depressing about knowing that one of the few remaining newspaper reviewers only spends 90 minutes on a book. And reads it diagonally.

Still, I guess you gotta make a living.


Sarah - I hadn't thought to make the connection to peripheral vision, but mine's quite good, a trait I inherited from my father. I also have 20/20 vision and so won't need glasses until the inevitable inflection point at around age 45, and when that happens I suspect my natural reading speed will fall off for a while.

Tito - yeah, same for web reading as for print; if anything I read faster on the web because I spent significantly more time reading online.

Don - perhaps you fell victim to skimming as it seems you've taken what I said out of context.

Thanks to all who have commented here and at Jacket Copy with similar reading practices. It is heartening to know I am not alone in my freakish ways!


I can't comment on the diagonal vs. linear eye movement, but in response to what you said about "whole language vs. phonics" method of reading, I do know a little about the research on this, and both your analogy and your conclusions follow the generally accepted research. Good readers (i.e. those with high comprehension levels) do not read individual words on a page. They "chunk" the text into groups of words with meaning. The higher the rate of chunking the GREATER the comprehension, because the reader is able to hold more information in her short term memory at the same time.

A simple example of chunking is how people remember phone numbers. Most humans have difficulty remembering ten random digits. Remembering two three digit numbers and a four digit number, (e.g. area code + exchange + 4 digits) is much easier, because the brain treats it as "three" objects instead of ten. If you read in chunks of words, you are more likely to remember the preceding paragraph, and therefore to make connections and see patterns within the text. In fact, reading too slowly can hinder comprehension because the readers will forget what the beginning of the sentence said by the time they get to the end if they are reading word by word in a long sentence. (This topic is of considerable interest to English and reading teachers, and has been studied pretty extensively. I can't remember the exact citations, but if anyone is interested, I'd suggest googling the magazine American Educator, and searching their archives.)

That said, I think you read freakishly fast, Sarah. But my general feeling is that as with any physical exercise, practice makes for a speedier performance. For contrast, what is your reading procedure reading a language other than English? Do you absorb information in the same way but at a slower speed, or do you find yourself chunking less?

Steve Ulfelder

You're lucky. I'm a dead-slow reader; I average 22 books per year. I recently blogged (http://noparticularorderblog.blogspot.com/) that given my age, this means I'll read only about 1000 more books in my lifetime.

Jersey Jack

Slow down, girl. Reading should be like sex -- take your time, enjoy it, don't rush through so you can move on to the next.

Jack Wei

The way in which people read a book or newspaper is akin to the cache
memory in the computer world.
And obviously, it is related to sight reading in the music world. Some people can "hear" the music as they read a score, whereas other people have to read "note by note" and take much longer to study and play a new piece.

Guess which one is more likely to perform many new pieces in a year and to almost memorize a piece that they can always have in their
available pieces for very many years.Horowitz took 7 years to learn and record "Pictures at an Exhibition" in the original score written for the solo piano. But he never ever tried to perform the same piece in a public concert, because he said that it was impossible to remember all of the difficult parts. And nobody has played "Pictures" in concert without getting lost in the complex score.

John McFetridge

I'm also a very slow reader. I wish I could read faster.

Of course, I wish I could run as fast as Usain Bolt, too, but them's the breaks...


Hey, by the way, thanks for being such a good sport!

Would you want to take on a friendly challenge of some sort?


As a fellow freakishly reader, I think chunking explains it best. As far a I can tell, I can read about six to seven words at a single time, but it's impossible to tell. It's torture to slow down enough to be aware of what I am doing.

Unfortunately, with 5 kids, it's impossible for me to read as many books as I would like to. Now I rely on the internet and blogs to provide my reading fix... the best thing... I can do it at work ;)

Congratulations on 462


wow. what i wouldn't give for that talent, especially when i'm having to read through one of my copy-edited manuscripts for about the zillionth time, or having to wade through 10 or 11 volumes for research, as i'll soon be doing.

can this ability be acquired in some inane or pedestrian way? by speed-eating just before bedtime, for example? or by talking very fast, like the fedex guy, just before sitting down to read?

i certainly envy you.


At some point, do you mind posting a list of the 462? I'm curious what is on there!


Sarah, I don't believe your explanation is coherent. I also have a strong musical background (started violin at age 4) and I also read "audibly," meaning that I "hear" the words as I read them. But that means that the upper limit on my speed is a normal talking cadence (unless I'm making an effort to skim). This makes me an extremely slow reader!

If you are reading anywhere near as fast as you say you couldn't possibly be attending to what you read in an audible fashion.

I do envy all of you fast readers. I essentially will never have time to read fiction since I have a hard time just finishing the daily news. However I suspect that anyone who reads faster than a talking pace begins to sacrifice retention and comprehension. (Which is fine for novels and recreational reading.)

Cine Cynic

I envy you all speed readers, not just the freakishly fast ones. I'm such a slow reader that I often end up pruning my reading list. Thank God I don't read the newspaper.

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