Writer Response – February 2009
Last week’s article drew several comments, and already there are possibly five columns’ worth of questions.
Benjamin’s comment was first, so I’ll tackle that. He asked,
what is the most you’re read in one year, and how the hell did you do it?
Excellent question, and one that I’m going to have to break down into two areas, for two different types of reading.
The first of these is pleasure reading.
One of my goals for this year is to read more – I have a stack of unread books on my bookshelf, going back over five years. It took me over a year to read Les Miserables, the same for The Brothers Karamazov. In terms of reading for my own pleasure, I hope that this year will be the year that sees me read the most for my own pleasure, and I will achieve this by making better use of my time.
I probably read a lot more when I was at school. I had evenings, weekends, and long holidays to myself, no responsibilities, no distractions. When you have an abundance of time, it is easy to find time to do things like reading. When you have other demands (work, household chores etc) then you have to work with the time you have. The secret is not to try to create more time, but to use the time you have well.
These days, I always ensure that I bring a book with me wherever I go, so that when I have an idle moment (especially commuting) I can read a few pages. This month alone, I have read seven books, just by ensuring I had reading material to hand during quiet moments.
So that’s pleasure reading. In terms of sheer volume of words, then the most I ever read in one year was when I was at university studying for a Master’s degree. I had three taught classes and one dissertation by research. I can’t even begin to calculate how much reading that was.
I spent most of that year in the library, surrounded by my research materials. How did I do it? Firstly, I treated it like a job. My main time commitment was to studying, from nine in the morning to five at night, and often a few hours in the evenings or weekends. During breaks between terms, I visited libraries at other institutions, and continued to work on my research. I had the time, and I used it to read. But that alone would not be enough.
Secondly, the style of reading was different. When reading for pleasure, we tend to slow down a little, savour each phrase, pause to consider the scene being set. For my research, my reading was purposive, driven by the questions I wanted answered. I soon learned how to skim over large areas of text, gleaning the general sense of the section I was reading, to determine whether it was useful to my purpose. If it was, I could hone in on key words and phrases. If not, a quick note would be made of it, should it prove useful later, then it was passed over.
Purposive reading has a direction and focus that takes you through a text at speed, with the intent of harvesting information, and is based on the 80/20 rule – that 80 per cent of all information comes from only 20 per cent of text. Purposive reading avoids padding, linguistic tricks and stylistic quirks, and boils down the text to the who, what, when, where, why and how.
It is a skill that we can all learn, and one that sadly I have let become rusty. Over the years I have studied various speed reading techniques (the most useful I found was Tony Buzan), as well as more unusual, almost esoteric concepts (Paul Scheele’s Photoreading course). The efficacy of these techniques varies amongst users, but there are many common tips that I would like to leave you with, to help you to become a faster reader. These can be applied to reading for pleasure, as well as purposive reading.
- Read the back cover blurb, table of contents etc of books – right there, you can often discover whether or not a book is likely to be useful to your reading purpose.
- Move your eyes swiftly across the page, and don’t skip backwards. Your eyes and mind can cope with more than one word at a time – whole groups of words, even whole lines can be read at a glance and understood.
- Don’t sub-vocalise each individual word, either in your mind, or mouthing it silently, otherwise you slow yourself down to the rate of speech (60 to 100 words per minute), when even slow reading (250 words per minute) would be faster). Dropping sub-vocalisation can easily push you to 600 to 1000 words per minute.
- Use your finger, or a pencil, or any similar object, and move it across the line as you read. At school we are taught this is the sign of a bad reader. In fact, it can help you stop back-skipping to words you have read before, and help you take in groups of words at once.
- Practice, practice, practice. Reading is a skill, and like all skills the more you do the better you get at it.
- Stop worrying. Worrying that you can’t read quickly makes you more likely to sub-vocalise, back-skip, and all the other little flaws that make us slow readers.
And that is pretty much how I did it. Making use of my time to read gave me time I didn’t think I had. And learning a few useful reading techniques helped me to make better use of my time.