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Interview'd, a second go

Your Humble Blogger is in the process of answering five questions from GR Matt Hulan. To no-one’s surprise, the answers will be long, and have little to do with the questions. Any Gentle Reader who wants a turn on the grill should let me know; the requirement is that you respond to the questions and then offer your own skills as an Inquisitor to all and sundry.

So, the first two questions, were, essentially, when you blog about reading books in the blink of a proverbial, do you cheat or are you Just That Fast? And how do you do it? The first answer was that I cheat. The second is that I am Just That Fast.

Well, and not quite That Fast, but quite fast enough. I had never timed myself, but to answer your question, I decided to experiment. For my first time trial, I picked up a often-read book, The Chosen, an old paperback copy, and opened it at random. It was the first time that Reuven meets Reb Saunders: the evening service to end Shabbat, and the lecture with the two mistakes, one for Danny and one for Reuven. A wonderful bit. I started on page 108, and I stopped on page 134, at the end of the lecture (but before we go upstairs with Reb Saunders and the boys). It took eight minutes. At 26 pages for 8 minutes, I get something like eighteen and a half seconds per page. The book is 270 pages long; call it 90 minutes total for the book? A nice long bath. It seems a bit fast to me, actually; I suspect it would take more like two hours. The next trial was with a novel I am reading for the first time, People of the Book, a hardback. I started on page 281 and stopped on page 297, after eleven minutes. Call it thirty-seven seconds a page. Four hours for the whole book, assuming a constant rate (which wouldn’t happen). Last trial: I read eight pages of Isaiah Berlin’s “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century” in Four Essays on Liberty, which took eleven minutes. Which I thought was a pretty good clip. At that rate, it would take me an hour or so just to finish that essay, and five hours to finish the book. Which is preposterous, not only because I doubt I could read the essay for an hour without stopping, but because I clocked myself on the first eight pages, which are introductory in nature and require very little going back to check what I’m reading now against what I thought I read in the last bit.

Anyway, is that fast? I suspect it is. I don’t really have a sense of it. If there are, say 350 words on a page of the novel (are there? I have no idea), I’m reading something like 600 words a minute for new stuff. TSOR tells me the average is 250 or so; so I evidently read at least twice the average speed. So I read quickly. I’m not a speed reader, but I do read very quickly.

How do I do it? I have no idea. I have no particular training in it, other than years and years and years spent reading. I do have what I think of as a quick mind. I type fairly quickly (around 50wpm, 12,000 kph 10-Key). My memory works very quickly indeed, when it works at all, which is very often, actually. I’m not a terribly deep thinker, or a creative one, but I am pretty quick. Growing up with quick siblings encouraged that quickness, at least in conversation. So in general, I think I read quickly because I think quickly.

I also must have trained myself to read quickly, simply to read as much as possible. In particular, I remember trying to finish books (or at least a chapter) before having to go to bed. Now, I hated to go to bed (I was an insomniac from an early age, worse luck), so some of that may have been staving off bedtime. I have a distinct memory of having two minutes (or some such) before my bedtime, and asking if I could read for that interval, being granted permission, and then being discovered on the sofa with my book half-an-hour or more later. But it wasn’t all a delaying tactic. I was also one of those flashlight-under-the-blanket readers, trying to finish the book before I got caught. I suspect some of my techniques for reading quickly, such as they are, I developed when I was seven or so, and trying to get to a stopping place before I had to stop.

One result of reading as quickly as I do is that if I am attempting to analyze a speech (remember when I used to do that?), I find it frustrating to slow down and listen to it delivered. I read transcripts rather than listening to or watching debates. Often, if Left Blogovia is abuzz about some video or other, I will find a transcript if I can, and if I can’t, sometimes I’ll just give it a miss altogether. The broadband breakthrough, the prevalence of YouTube and other video clips, and the wide availability of analysis on-line is cool, but I appreciate the theory and then go back to my text. Just a preference on my part.

Which I guess brings up one more thing to mention about my reading speed, which is that for a long time I thought that because I read faster than other people, I was smarter than other people. This is an easy mistake, but a problematic one. It’s more so because, since I both read faster and spend more time reading than many other people, and because of my trick memory I retain more of what I read than most other people, I have a greater store of information in my head than most people. Most of the information is useless trivia, true, but people are easily impressed by useless trivia. And I am, too, of course. I spent most of my teenage years impressed with my store of useless trivia, and I can’t honestly claim to be totally over it, even now. Still, I am not that smart. I’m OK, I have my strengths, and certainly it’s good to have a nice big memory store, but my ration of good ideas to bad ones is, frankly, not what I would want it to be. Which is a good thing to keep in mind, when I brag about my hundred books a year.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I have a vivid memory of something that happened when I was, hm, somewhere between eight and ten. We had a grad student renting a room who happened to be taking a speed-reading class, and she noticed how quickly I was turning the pages of Watership Down. She couldn't believe it, and so she found a book I'd never read before, timed me while I read a chapter, and then quizzed me on content. And so I discovered that I am, in fact, a speed reader. I do not, however, remember my speed.

I've always been an avid reader, and so I am sure it was just a matter of being voracious and practicing a lot. Certainly I don't remember learning to do it deliberately.

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