Can You Speed Read Literature?

Or, rather: should you speed read literature?

Not if you actually like reading literature, is the opinion from The Guardian’s Books Blog (“You can’t speed read literature”).

I spend a lot of time reading. And the whole idea of speed reading got me thinking (faster reading= more books read, after all). Here it is a nutshell:

“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.”

Now for some context, the general understanding is that the average reader reads about 250–300 words per minute, and —

“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.”

50% reading comprehension is pretty bad. Actually, it’s terrible. So the real question then: what is the point of speed reading literature? To me, one could trace an explanation back to the pleasures of reading. And The Guardian has some tut-tutting on this topic.

“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.”

I think speed reading has its uses. But literature isn’t likely to be one of them, and contrary to the usual sorts of thinking, faster isn’t always better:

“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”.

But before you chalk up all of this up to “typical British high-browishness” think about what speed reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities might look like —

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.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Oh, and apparently Harold Bloom read 1000 pages per hour.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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