Let us begin with some basic arithmetic. Reading a book a week — itself a highly demanding task — for 12 full months translates roughly to some 50 books in a year. And what of an average lifespan of committed reading? Where does, say, four decades of an uninterrupted book-a-week readerly marathon leave us? It means that we end up reading around 2,000 books in a lifetime — if we keep at it steadfastly. That’s as many books Norman Mailer read when researching his novel Harlot’s Ghost — a thousand-plus-pager that alone requires, from the standpoint of a lesser reader, a lifetime to be finished cover to cover. One wonders how quick Mailer was as a reader, and how he managed to squeeze out precious reading hours from his dizzyingly overwrought daily schedule, complete with generous allowances for alcohol intake.
Only the reckless would have risked asking Mailer head-on, “Pray tell, sir, did you by any chance speed-read these books?” At this effrontery, Mailer, who was also a boxing enthusiast, would have punched the living daylights out of his interlocutor. Writers resent it when their credentials as readers are called into question. You can call them bad writers by all means, and the worst you’ll get is a scornful dismissal. But calling them casual readers, or indeed speed-readers, presents a more fundamental challenge to a writer’s identity. As a writer, one doesn’t want to speed-read texts any more than having one’s own work speed-read. It’s an insult, fair and square, to tell a writer that you skimmed through his or her novel. And the only thing worse is when you tell them that you speed-read it.
The novelist Anis Shivani, author of Karachi Raj, is certainly not a speed-reader. In fact, he aligns himself in opposition to speed-reading, doubting the very existence of such a pointless enterprise. “Speed-reading? What is that?” he wrote in an email response to my queries. “I thought it went the way of shorthand in the 1920s or 1950s. Sounds like speed dating, or speedy sex, or speedy food. Sounds like a very corrupt degenerative American capitalist idea: squeeze in as many words in as little time as possible, so you can take care of other more important things in life.” He was categorical about the importance of slow reading. “All good writing, fiction, poetry, nonfiction is worth reading slowly. Each book deserves exactly the time it deserves, nothing more, nothing less. I wish death to speed-reading (if there is such a thing).”
The term itself — speed-reading — suggests an impatient attitude towards literature, or texts in general. In fact, the very exercise of speed-reading conflates and confuses the literary with the non-literary. If close reading — that old-fashioned method of approaching texts — was all about finding literary value in something, speed-reading strips literature, as a category, of its elevated stature; it reduces everything to just words on the page, there to be absorbed by the unresting eye of the speed-reader. This means that the gospel of speed-reading has only one high virtue: mechanical absorption of the words on the page or, in other words, double-quick data intake. Speed-readers get straight to the larger point, often at the cost of missing the finer ones. Woody Allen once jibed about having taken a speed-reading course and finishing War and Peace in 20 minutes; his final summation of Tolstoy’s magnum opus was: “It involves Russia.”
There’s something subversive about speed-reading the classics, though. It makes these books that we never get round to reading — august, sombre and uninviting in their leather bindings — appear more manageable. This is Italo Calvino’s definition of the classic: “The books of which we hear people say, ‘I am rereading...’ and never ‘I am reading’.” And here’s something that must never say: “I am speed-reading the classics.”
So it was not without hesitation, and a wearying sense of dismay, that I recently approached a popular bookshop in my area, with the express objective of getting some classics to speed-read. My objective was unclear: maybe I wanted to understand the exercise better, or improve my reading skills. Perhaps it was the strangeness of this act that appealed to me: the fact that you could hoodwink the gatekeepers of high literature and glean what is of value in great texts without paying the actual price, which is always calculated in terms of the time you spend with a book. I soon had on my desk some very imposing titles indeed: Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Shelley’s Complete...
But hold on one second. We must pause here to make some necessary adjustments. It’s important to first understand the phenomenon of speed-reading a little better. To get some perspective, we’re back with the arithmetic. Reading slow is when you are able to take in only 200 words or less every minute; quick readers can go up to 400 a minute. But speed-readers are a different kettle of fish. Some claim to read over a thousand words per minute, and the inventor of speed-reading, an American teacher named Evelyn Wood, reported, straining imagination even by American standards, that her reading speed was 6,000 words per minute.
The Internet is awash with portals offering a diagnosis of your reading skills and, of course, a treatment pertaining to all your readerly ills. My findings, with regard my own reading ability, were discouraging to say the least. I took one of these tests, and out came the shaming result: 209 words a minute, the website declared. I could almost hear someone clucking his tongue in the background.
This is discouraging because a lot rides these days on how quickly you can read. Reading fast can hold you in good stead in corporate or academic circles. Imagine actually being able to read all those things you pretend every day to have read. There’s also no place for a sluggish reader in the book business, for instance, where only the swift of the eye can survive. In publishing offices where manuscripts are tossed over the transom by the dozen, the best editors are those who are quick to find candidates of merit in their slush piles. Manasi Subramaniam, who is a commissioning editor and rights manager with HarperCollins India, said that most of her work-related perusal can be considered a species of speed-reading:
“You know, as editors we are always speed-reading,” she said. “When I get a manuscript I am always reading really, really fast to get a sense of it. At least the first time I go through a manuscript, it is a very fast read. And honestly, this has made me sort of long for the days when I could take my time with a book in leisurely reading, enjoying every turn of phrase, every nuance that makes me think. It’s something that I sort of romanticise even now, thinking that this is what reading should ideally be.”
As a publishing professional, you instruct yourself to read quickly in such a way that does justice to the text at hand. “The eye sort of trains itself to pick up the things that are important, and the memory retains the significant bits. The more you speed-read the better you get at these little tricks. But having said that, I think there is more pleasure to be had in savouring a piece,” Subramaniam said.
Some people are indeed predisposed to reading fast. Oscar Wilde famously had a lightning-quick eye for reading. As did the critic Harold Bloom, who once baffled listeners at a radio interview by saying he can read a hundred pages in an hour. That’s War and Peace tackled, if not exactly in 20 minutes then within half a day. But in stark contrast to these luminaries, there are those, like myself, who tend to read so slowly — 209, that figure will always haunt me — that it’s embarrassing.
These days, a slew of speed-reading courses are available on the Internet, tailored for sluggards like me. “Provides several speed-reading modes,” declares an advert for a speed-reading software, “to pace your reading beyond this sound barrier of 400 words per minute.” The sound barrier! You can’t get grander than that.
I asked Subramaniam what she thought of breaking the Mach 1 barrier of speed-reading. “To be honest,” she said, “I am not old-fashioned by any stretch of the imagination, but I definitely think that this is stretching it a little bit. If you have to make it too mechanical and say you can read these many words in these many minutes, that’s stretching it.”
What about speed-reading the classics? Does that in any way defeat the purpose of literary absorption? “I really think it defeats the purpose. I studied literature for several years and I used to spend nights poring over one sentence just trying to figure out what it means, trying to understand the linguistic implications of a sentence. For me, to speed-read a classic is to lose its flavour a little bit. I think there are writers that can be speed-read, even among the classics. But many of them just can’t. You can’t read, like Jane Austen, for example and not spend time over it.”
Ah, Jane Austen. Wasn’t there a book by her on my list? Mansfield Park, considered Austen’s best-loved novel that even made the list of classics Vladimir Nabokov chose to teach his students at Cornell University (you couldn’t get more finicky about literature than Nabokov even if you tried). I chose a basic speed-reading technique for this novel: I had to let my index finger guide my eye across the page. It’s a curious method that makes reading as much a physical act as a mental one. It also reduces the frequency of what’s known as “regressive eye movement”, meaning that your focus throughout the act of reading doesn’t waver much. The finger races under the sentences as the eyes try their best keeping up. As simple as it gets.
Here I was, with the Austen novel: “About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntington...” Skim, skim, skim. “She had two sisters to be benefited by...” Skim, skim. “...and thinking no more of the matter.” Skim. I was following a timer — set just under the Mach 1 limit of reading 400 words per minute — and my finger inevitably ended up tracing more words than my eyes could follow. After spending a few hours with the novel I, too, can lay claim to have skimmed through a substantial chunk of Mansfield Park. In fact, I skimmed through it — with my finger, at least — in its entirety. But the joke would be at my expense if I, like Woody Allen, were to say that Austen’s novel “involves” England. Or, to be more precise, involves adultery in the English society.
The question still remains a relevant one: how does a writer feel at having been speed-read? The author Yashodhara Lal writes popular fiction, and she told me that she takes it as a compliment when someone calls any of her books a breezy read. “On the one hand, you feel tempted to think that if you took months to write it, you know, somebody should savour it,” she told me. “But I think we’re living in an era of instant gratification and, particularly in the genre that I write in, it’s a great thing to absorb a story within a
Still, the distinction to be made here is between reading for pleasure and utility reading. Lal said that enhancing one’s reading speeds would be something meant for an office worker trying to get the hang of an instruction manual or something, not for a casual reader. “I don’t actually see the point in consciously trying to up the pace of your reading when it comes to reading for pleasure.”
The writer and critic Anatole France once said that life is too short and Proust too long. Clearly there was something more on his agenda than finishing Proust; he was after getting the most pleasure out of Proust’s writing — something that takes its own sweet time. Akhil Katyal is an assistant professor in the English department at the Shiv Nadar University, and he confirmed that he has a segment by Proust in his literature syllabus. I began by asking him if he had any reading advice for his students.
“One of the things we clearly suggest is if you have a class on a particular day,” he said, “your reading should have begun five or six days before it. So that you have enough time to read, reread, and make sense of what’s on the page. That is true as much of prose as it is of poetry.”
I didn’t dare bring up with Katyal my recent adventure of speed-reading — or not-quite-reading — Austen. But when I touched upon the subject, he gave me an intriguing theory of his that views speed-reading as symptomatic of a general cultural shift towards compression and rapidity.
He mentioned “The Bologna Process”, a series of political agreements between European countries that curtailed the master’s degree programme on the continent by one year. “The master’s courses were reduced from a two-year to a one-year degree,” he said. “And students there would tell you that the course finishes before it even begins. You hardly get the grasp of your subject. You just collect the basic points of a text rather than the finer points. What the one-year master’s did is that it changed the way reading is done in the classrooms, and also outside the classroom. Suddenly, texts were not subjected to leisurely analytics, but to quick summing up.”
Speed-reading, then, becomes an important utility in the world of quick-fix education and abridged degree programmes, which are no more restricted to Europe. From an “interesting literary experiment”, as Katyal called it, speed-reading becomes an exercise having significant political overtones. He said: “Speed-reading, in my opinion, is also a political concept. It’s a product of a larger political-economic culture of higher education.”
At this point, I return to my hallowed list of classics, fully aware of having become a handmaiden of our political masters who clearly want more people to speed-read. But also, having become a slightly more able speed-reader. I was trying my hand at the world’s first novel, Don Quixote (“It was also,” as Martin Amis used to quip, “the world’s first postmodern novel”). And I was making good progress with it. If the fad of speed-reading were around in the 17th century, Quixote (whose big contribution to the English language was the word quixotic) would definitely have tried his hand at it.
“In fine,” writes Cervantes about his protagonist, “he gave himself up so wholly to the reading of romances, that a-nights he would pore on until it was day, and a-days he would read on until it was night...” It’s a beautiful sentence that extends all the way to the bottom of the page. What the sentence does in this reader, despite all my acquired speed-reading skills, is trigger the regressive eye movement. My focus begins to waver, and I am sent by the eyes to the sentence’s beginning. Like all the excellent sentences in literature, it, too, wants to be reread and, more so, to be read out loud. Maybe it’s time to get rid of the clock on the desk, of the speed-reading apps on the phone, and of this guiding finger fixated on the page. I now revert to my original reading speed. Back to 209 words a minute — way below the Mach 1 barrier of speed-reading. I let pleasure principle of reading once again take hold, and then, I let Cervates’ language, slowly, fill the air: “And now his head was full of nothing but enchantments...”