Once, in a moment of great weakness, I looked at my bookshelf and realized there were a number of books up there that I had not read. I further slid into silliness and error when I proceeded to count the books I had read vs. the number still awaiting my attention. I did not count Melissa's girly books, our collection of childrens books, or even the reference-type books which should be referred to but not actually read.
Turns out I had read less than 40% of the books that I own. I've read a couple since then, but I've purchased more. That isn't helping my average any.
This was about three months ago. Ever since, I've been wanting more and more to actually dig into all these treasures that taunt me from my bookshelf, but I just can't seem to read fast enough. As a result, I've been experimenting lately with a variety of different reading techniques. I've tried everything from speed-reading gimmicks to Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book, which recommends that most people read through an entire book, slowly and carefully, at least three times to truly "own" its content (yeah right).
In grad school, I discovered how much my reading experience could change with pressure, environment, and practice. And practice I got. Each semester, I would be assigned 3-6 books, each usually 250-400 pages per class, with three or four classes in all. That added up to an average of about 4000 pages per 3-month semester. That's no mean feat for someone who was accustomed to reading 3-4 books per year (okay, and about 75 emails per day at WebTrends). Needless to say, I found myself trying to skim through material as quickly as possible so as to be able to write a competent review or pass a test on it.
All that experience turned into an ability to read material quickly and retain a fair amount. I've been able to keep up my reading habits fairly well since school ended in May, though I've been spending a lot more time with journals (First Things, Interpretation) and magazines (Wired, Books & Culture Review) than books.
But lately, as I've been trying out some of the speed-reading stuff, I began to ask myself what the ratio of speed to retention is. I've found that my leisurely reading pace (if it's quiet and I'm not tired) is around 350 words per minute. With concentration and the finger-wagging thing that you are supposed to do while speed reading, I've been able to crank that up to around 600, sometimes 800, words per minute. The strange thing is, there doesn't seem to be much difference in what sticks in my brain. (And by that I mean that not much sticks for me at the leisurely pace, and reading faster doesn't seem to reduce it any).
That has caused me to start thinking about what happens when I read. The faster I read, the more my mind picks up on images and structure; whole phrases stick in my head and it ends up being more of a lived experience. I reflect back on it afterward and a lot seems to have happened to me. The slower I read, the more my mind branches out, thinking of other related things, anticipating where the text is going, trying to respond to questions generated by the text. Even reading at a leisurely pace, I don't have the patience to stop and explore most of these threads, so I figure that isn't important anyway.
The speed-reading stuff helps to account for these last items (which my brain doesn't have time for) by making multiple passes through the text before and after reading through it at the faster speed. This way, I feel like I'm not derailing the flow of the text but I get to enjoy the process of thinking through the threads that naturally develop afterward. When all is said and done, the two different techniques end up being very different experiences called "reading". I find myself wondering, which is the better way?
I feel like I'm going to need to stick with the reading experiments for a while to find one that lets me absorb and enjoy what I'm reading. But there is always the tyranny of the bookshelf (not to mention the tyranny of Borders and Powells) pressing me on to greater haste...