the Little Red Reviewer

On Speed Reading

Posted on: April 19, 2014


I’ve always been a little jealous of how fast my Mom can read. Books she zips through in two days will take me over a week to read.  She finally admitted  the other day that she’d taken a speed reading course in college, and I jokingly responded with “that’s cheating!”.  Another friend in the conversation defended the speed reading course, because she’d taken the same one, and she said that this particular famous speed reading course taught one how to quickly get the most important information out of sentences and paragraphs. Presumably so you weren’t wasting your time on the unimportant stuff.


so, that assumes there is unimportant stuff?


stained glass


And all I could think of was Catherynne M. Valente’s Prester John books,  The Habitation of the Blessed, and The Folded World. Her prose in those novels reads like a stained glass window, where as the sun moves through the sky, the colors shift in the window, giving an illusion of continual movement and shadow as the  story unfolds in the rainbow race of color across the floor and over your body.  And on the other side of that stained glass window a symphony orchestra, complete with leitmotifs, counterpoints and returns, movements, and five or ten minutes of that gorgeous grey noise of pure potentiality when everyone is warming up before the conductor takes to the stage.



I realize I sound little melodramatic and over the top. And I do understand that when I say “that sounds like a sunset”, or “that sounds like purple”, that I am not actually seeing a sunset or that color (or seeing them consistently), but my brain is telling me those are the only words in my vocabulary that match what I’m experiencing at that moment. There is certainly an element of metaphor happening here, but there is also my complete confidence that those adjectives and phrases are the rightest ones.


For example, Shania Twain’s singing voice sounds like the color orange.  I’m not seeing orange when I hear her voice, but in my brain, that is the adjective that best fits what I’m hearing.  Singing voices tend to sound orange or like shades of blueish-purple, and men’s singing voices often taste like metal. I think there’s something to it that orange and blue are complimentary colors. Although Maluka’s voice sounds like sandstone, which isn’t part of the color wheel at all, so um, there’s that.

sandstone 1

Yes! it sounds like this!


Which the long way around brings me back to:  If I was speed reading, how much of  would I miss? Would the stained glass window become simple clear leaded glass? Would there be no sun moving behind it, no movement of colors on the floor for me to chase after?  Would the symphony be reduced to only the brass section, or just a string quartet, or one very bemused yet confusingly lonely oboe?


My Mom gets through way more books that I do. But I’ll keep my slower pace, thanks.



21 Responses to "On Speed Reading"

I agree with you. Speed reading fiction seems odd to me. Seems like a useful skill if you’re reading for information only, though (articles, textbooks, etc).


so, like, “skimming”?


Ha, I guess that’s what it is? I’m not sure. I think by skimming you just get the gist but lose some information.


I agree, too. My wife doesn’t speed read, exactly, but she reads fast (a book that takes me 10 hours takes her around 3) and she admits that she doesn’t always read every word, that she sort of skims. I don’t want to feel that I’m missing anything. It’s also a sign of respect for the writer – they deserve my full read.


I often have to force myself to slow down. Never took classes but can speed read pretty well, which came in handy in college. And I admit I still use for some type of novels ( not missing beatuful prose much in the typical airport thriller). But for most fantasy I want to slow it up and savor it when good.

Yet there are times when I crush a chapter and know everything that went on, but can’t even remember a characters name from it and realize I got into old habits.


Speed reading techniques were developed specifically for business use. They are great for absorbing a lot of information where: you already know a lot of what is going to be in there, there is no varied vocabulary or surprises, and it’s kind of repetitive. So if you have a pile of reports to get through for your business, it’s great. It’s *not* designed for imaginative fiction or literature or anything much besides business.

However, we all have different reading speeds naturally. I am pretty fast, and I’ve never taken a speed reading course. Heavy non-fiction or really complex literature will slow me down. (I had to teach my daughter to slow down for non-fiction; she had developed a habit of gulping her books when she was younger, and if given a dense history chapter, would read it at top speed and then remember nothing. It was a surprise to her that different books require different reading techniques.)

You mom might just be a pretty fast reader by nature.


My husband just blasts through a thriller for the pure visceral experience, which he enjoys immensely, and that’s all he remembers of it. But a non-fiction book will involve him deeply for days. So it does seem that there are multiple flavors of reading enjoyment, even within the same person.

Like most of you, I’m greedy. I want it all, and will move right in, bag and baggage, till I’ve wrung out every drop.

Now, to get my hands on Prester John ….


The speed I read at depends on the novel really. It it’s very complex with lots of world building, description and unusual or difficult to pronounce names then it undoubtedly takes a little longer. If it’s a much lighter affair then I probably just breeze through. I don’t skim or speed read – unless, on a very rare occasion, if I’m not really enjoying a book but am determined to finish, then I might overlook some of the ‘filler’. I tend to think of speed reading to be something you would use more at work where you want to quickly get to the relevant points in a report.
Lynn 😀


It was a long time ago, but I took the Eleanor Wood speed reading course when I was in high school. It isn’t skimming, as some mention, it’s a way of scanning the page for relevant words and phrases, including action verbs, names (people and things), adverbial phrases, certain adjectives.

They started us off with books that had very narrow columns, only a few words, and we scanned down using a finger to pull our eyes down the page, then the next book had wider columns and so on until we could use the technique, with or without a finger, to read a regular paperback. We read both fiction and non-fiction. We were tested on the books at the end of the course, and I was amazed at how much I knew and remembered, but admittedly it was pretty much all facts. One book was a novel the took place at sea, and though I knew the names of the ship and crew, the cities and harbors, I had no feeling for the grey seas heaving under the hull nor the screams of the gulls, etc.

Plus, the technique must be practiced until it’s second nature, at which point one can slow slightly and retain more. I didn’t keep up the practice, and so remain the very slow (200 pages a week) reader I was before. I do like to think I absorb more by reading slowly, and I will occasionally scan a paragraph or two when I can tell it’s just verbiage, so as to get on with the story.


By the way, Happy Easter, Red.


I haven’t taken a speed reading class, but I’ve always read very fast. Both my grandmother and my mother read fast, but I read faster then them. I can get through an average paperback in about two hours. Sometimes it depends on how it’s written.

From what I gather, this is because I’m visual spatial. Where other people sound out one word and then move to the next, I go by what the words look like. I hop from word to word, and sometimes I hop over words and sentences. So, if a writer is too subtle and puts in a detail in a single sentence she expects me to spot, I’m very likely to miss it. Likewise, if I’ve always had trouble with written instructions. You’d be surprised how missing a single word can change the entire instruction. even rereading the instructions multiple times doesn’t always fix it — there’s usually something in that sentence that’s triggering the hop, and I’ll repeat it every single time I read the instructions and miss exactly the same thing.


I do that Visually Spacial thing when I’m looking at street signs. I can make out the shape of the word sooner than I can make out the individual letters, I know that if I’m looking for “Vining Rd” to look for a tall followed by a long short rectangle followed by an under the line letter.

And oh yeah do I know how missing a single word can change an entire instruction! so often has that bit me in the butt at work, I can’t even tell you!


I never took the course. I am by no means a fast reader. I feel that I able to enjoy the book that I am reading. My wife on the other hand is a fast reader…she sucks lol.

I am Lynn though it takes me a bit longer if there are names and world(s) that are tougher to pronounce.


Being a naturally fast reader is pretty much the only way I survived grad school. I suspect that it may hinder my ability to read deeply in books, remember small details, or catch enough foreshadowing to guess what’s coming next, but I’ve decided to go with quantity over quality when I read. :p


I agree with Anton, doesn’t seem to be something that makes a lot of sense for fiction. For me the words and how they are strung together is at least half of the fun. Loved that you described awesome writing as being like a stain glass window.


I think I’m mostly “colour-blind” when it comes to beautiful prose. I don’t say that as a good thing, but there it is. What gets me is good story, great characters, intriguing situations, witty and clever dialogue.

But I’m also a slow reader and I haven’t ever tried (seriously) to increase my speed. I certainly don’t want to do it if it means skimming or skipping. I want to read every word.

I actually just installed this Sprint app on my phone and tablet which I think is based on that Spritz thing that’s been making the news. I used it on one of my ebooks for a while. Whilst it’s weird and I expected to hate it I did seem to be retaining as much as I would reading normally.


[…] for the poetry.” I’ve long taken his words to heart, and resisted learning to speed read. The Little Red Reviewer agrees with me and Professor Tweet, and explains why in charming […]


I find that I have an optimal speed for getting the book to play out like a movie to my inner eye, to get in the “reading trance” so to speak. If it is a colourful book (only certain authors are colourful and gets my synaesthesia going) I get a general sense of the colourfeel as I read and when I think back at what I’ve read. If I read faster, I miss out on that too, so I try to avoid it. It was interesting reading about your experiences.


thanks for your comment!

“reading trance” is the perfect term for it.


I find that once I enter it, I fail to notice the reading pace at all… I also think that getting into the reading trance is something that gets better with practice, even though it is way easier with a great book/author… 🙂


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