Fast Reader

I read fast. I’ve never specifically clocked myself at a words-per-minute rate (there’s something a little too needfully MENSA-like about doing crap like that), but it’s fast enough that in college I was able to read every single book (but one) assigned in my class on Joseph Conrad the night before the final, a total of something like 2400 pages. Ironically, since the final was passage identification, I was able to to guess which passage was from the book I didn’t read because I didn’t recognize it at all. That’s some funny stuff. It also suggests (as my ex-girlfriend was fond of telling me at the time) that I may have wasted significant portions of my college career. But never mind that now.

Reading quickly is obviously useful but it has its downside as well. This afternoon I purchased Neil Gaiman’s new graphic collection The Sandman: Endless Nights (well, Gaiman’s as well as a host of illustrators; I’m sure Gaiman himself would want me to acknowledge their input), and looked forward to spending a number of hours with it; about 45 minutes later I was done, and that included a break halfway through to do a couple of errands for my wife, who is sadly nursing a head cold. I thought the collection was really well done (I especially liked the one with Dream himself in it, although the one featuring Desire was very well done as well), but still, 45 minutes. I’ll go back and re-read it, sure, but you know. There’s only one first time. This is not Gaiman’s fault; he gave good value for the time. It’s mine.

Well, you say. Read slower. Yeah, but that doesn’t solve the problem. And anyway I can’t do it. I can’t make myself read slower than I naturally read. That would be like trying to make yourself talk at half speed. Eventually you’d go insane because you’d be spending more time thinking about how fast you were talking than on what you were actually saying. I read as fast as I read; any faster and I miss stuff; any slower and I get distracted. In this respect I’m pretty much like anyone else.

It also doesn’t help that I’m a book glutton, in that if I’m reading something I like I won’t do anything else but read that book until I’m done, so the trick of reading just before you go to bed doesn’t really work well with me — well, that’s not true. There are lots of books I read that I can put down. But that doesn’t say much nice about the book, I’m afraid. The problem with a book that I can put down is that often I don’t feel inclined to pick it back up. I have a couple of dozen unfinished books loitering around the house right now, in fact.

There’s only been one book I’ve ever really been able to pace myself with: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, and it was a special case: The writing in that book was so wonderful that I literally but the book down half-way through about ten times before I actually finished it, because the idea of finishing the book (and therefore having nothing else to read in it) was just too sad. I believe what finally got me to finish the book was the fact Helprin had written another book. But even in this case, it wasn’t a matter of reading slower as deliberate self-deprivation.

So here’s a thought for all you not-especially-fast readers. I’ve had several of you note to me over the years that you wish you could read faster and that you envy people who do. But you should note that sometimes I (and perhaps other fast readers) envy you. You get spend more time with the first time with wonderful things to read. It seems like a fair trade, at least when wonderful books are involved.

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