On Becoming a Well-Read Slow Reader

Can a lifelong slow reader nonetheless become a well-read one?

For 2021, I’ve once again signed up for the Goodreads reading challenge.

Because the Goodreads challenge is a public one—and because books (both reading them and writing them) are a huge part of my identity—this means I’ve targeted to read a “respectable” number of books.

In other words, more books than I already know I can comfortably read in a year.

My “reading stress”, as it were, arises solely from the fact that I’m a slow reader.

I always have been, and it haunts me. I maintain that my life would be significantly better if only I could read faster.

I’d be smarter for having read more. I’d be up on what everyone else is reading in a much more timely manner and be able to join the cultural conversation about it. In general, I could read more of the books in the world that I know I’ll just never get to.

But in truth, I do at times manage another reading speed—or at least another reading mode: obsessive.

That’s when a book is so damn good, I need to know what happens next RIGHT NOW. This has the effect of dampening my unfortunate habit of subvocalization (reading each word aloud in one’s mind), which helps me get through pages faster.

The solution to this conundrum is thus obvious. Stop being so goddamn vain and target a manageable number of books instead.

(This, I’m not gonna lie, is unlikely.)

As well: read better books, which history shows I should be able to read faster.

(This makes good sense, and is largely doable. Except….)

It also means quitting books I’m not enjoying rather than forcing myself through them, in order to get to a better book that I can read faster.

(This is … complicated.)

Costs and causes

For one thing, my general personality comes into play. I don’t expect to love every moment of any other aspect of my life. Indeed, at times, life can be pretty damn bleak. There’s really nothing else for it but to brace yourself up and wait for another sunrise.

But if I’m to be really honest, the main reason I struggle to quit books is because, as a writer, I’m conflicted as to why, exactly, I read. Is it for pleasure alone or for study on how to become a better writer?

If the latter, than reading slowly, reading every word, reading every book I start regardless of how it engages (or not) is a valuable education.

Also, to modify the opening question of this post, how can a slow reader who quits books ever become well-read? It sort of defies basic logic.

Or does it? If I’m going to start spewing logic, I’d be loath to not consider the logical fallacy known as the Fallacy of Sunk Costs.

Wikipedia says:

People demonstrate “a greater tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort, or time has been made.” This is the sunk cost fallacy, and such behavior may be described as “throwing good money after bad,” while refusing to succumb to what may be described as “cutting one’s losses”.

The article goes on to explain how once people proceed so far in an endeavour—e.g. reading 150 pages in a book”, waiting for it to get good”—they often feel they’ve passed a point of no return. Yet “Economists regard this behaviour as irrational. It is inefficient because it misallocates resources by taking irrelevant information into account.”

The fact remains that education and enjoyment will always coexist within a good book. With a bad book, however, once I realize I no longer want to read it, hasn’t the education already occurred by that point?

I know why I want to stop reading. I know to not do that same thing in my own books. In all likelihood, I could find a better book and read it in its entirety in less time than it would take to finish the one I disliked—a much more logical pathway to being well-read.

Plus I’m literally only this way when it comes to books. I have zero problems with quitting TV series (I do it constantly). I even quit movies, which at most is only two-and-a-half hours of my life that I could pass while playing with my phone at the same time.

Wikipedia agrees, stating that economists suggest options involving suffering in only one way (e.g. wasted money) are preferable to suffering in two ways (e.g. wasted money and wasted time). Or in my less capitalistic case, wasted time on its own is better than wasted time + no enjoyment + questionable additional education.

This year, I’ll see just how well this math adds up.

~

(Image source #1 and #2)

11 thoughts on “On Becoming a Well-Read Slow Reader

  1. I encourage you to dump books you don’t like – I go to the last 2-3 chapters, read them, and maybe once or twice out of a hundred books, go finish the middle.

    It is prompted by when I begin to skim, because part of a bad book for me is when the author dumps so much irrelevant (to the story) stuff on me I can’t stand to waste my limited life on it. I figure I’ll give it that last chance by reading the end – but my rate of going back shows I should probably not bother.

    We authors have higher standards for books. If one starts doing things we wouldn’t do, I’m not going to ever buy or borrow a book by that author again, so out it goes.

    Also, I don’t want to pick up BAD habits!

    You probably won’t listen, but I encourage you to try it more frequently, to see if you would indeed get more pleasure out of another book. Life isn’t school.

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    • I love how you say I probably won’t listen. There may be some truth to that. It not that I don’t want listen, but the feeling of “should” (I should be doing X) is powerful. Also because in invariably seem to stop liking books quite far in – usually past page 100 – at which point it feels like it would be more efficient to just continue rather than throwing all that progress out. But as I discussed in the post, that mightn’t be the case at all.

      Writers do have high standards for books. I don’t remember being this way when I was young. But then, what I lacked in reading speed then I could make up with considerably more free time to devote to it. Maybe I should look into audiobooks. At least with those, if I’m not enjoying the book my speed wouldn’t slow since it’s being read to me.

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  2. I love this! And I always hate the emphasis on reading speed (especially in the classroom). And I absolutely agree that things get lost if you read too fast–taking the time to slow down and really think about and absorb the book is it’s own skill. Good luck on your reading challenge! I’m cheering for you 🙂

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    • Thanks for the comment! Reading speed always caused me stress in school. I really think it’s a rare person in which fast reading, full recall of the content, and never dropping book all exist at the same time. I need to just do me and not worry about what others think. Happy reading to you this year too!

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  3. Before the pandemic, I was reading more audiobooks with my ears than paper books with my eyes.
    The reason for that was because the only time I listened to audiobooks was when I was in the car driving somewhere.
    Now that my driving time is down about 90% or more, I may finish one audio book every two months instead of one a week like before COVID.
    The neat thing about listening to audiobooks while driving, at least for me, is that I could drive four hours and never get tired and drowsy because I was so focused on the books I was listening to. Sometimes when I was almost to my destination, I’d drive right past it to finish a chapter before turning around.
    So far, knock on wood, I have never fallen asleep driving while listening to a good story. Before audiobooks, there were many times where I got drowsy and struggled to stay awake or had to pull over and park, and take a walk before continuing on the journey.
    After I started listening to audio books, that was never a problem.

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