April 19, 2019

Why are we obsessed with reading books more quickly?


Reading at this speed: not advised. (Via Pixabay)

Let’s begin Friday with three questions that look a lot easier to answer than they actually are:

  1. How many books do you read in a year?
  2. Would you like to read more?
  3. If yes, how many more?

If you keep a reading diary, the answer to question one should be pretty easy to come up with (also, kudos. I try and keep one every damn year and never last beyond February).

But even then, the figure you come up with is likely to be imprecise—what about the books you started but didn’t (or couldn’t) finish? What about the books that you left on public transport, and thought about replacing, but then just ended up forgetting about? (Farewell, The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd). What about the books that you rushed back to to read just one page, because that page was so perfect you can’t stop thinking about it? What about the books you read with gritted teeth until the end but disliked so intensely you couldn’t bear to write them in your reading diary (naming no names here)?

The point is, the act of reading is rarely a simple case of ‘finish one, start another one’—it’s an endless overlapping conversation between reader and page, an imprecise gumbo of genres and moods and facts and jokes and… cliffhangers. (Books complement and contrast with each other, too: see the idea of “book pudding,” suggested by one Twitter user recently.) Reading, for the most part, unfolds in the one place that can’t be quantified: your mind. And for that reason, it stubbornly resists cataloguing or statistical analysis. Or at least, it should do.

Yet, living as we do in an age of data, it is apparently very important to optimise, streamline, configure, and simplify just about everything (hey, you know who has a really, really good book on that, available now? Jenny Odell, that’s who. It’s called How to Do Nothing and you can order it here). Recently there have been a number of articles suggesting ways to read more books, even up to 100 a year (via Harvard Business Review), or even to get ‘the gist’ of books boiled down into a 12-minute animated summary (via BoingBoing). Earlier this month Reader’s Digest asked: Do You Read More Books Per Year Than The Average American? It’s a beguiling question, because we want to be told: you score higher-than-average. Your stats are great. You are living optimally.

While it is, of course, laudable to want to read more, increasing the quantity or your reading may not necessarily increase the quality of it. Every year, I pick a ‘big book’ to read over the summer—this year I’ve chosen Jerusalem, by Alan Moore. At 1200 pages, it will take several weeks to read—presumably making a terrible dent in my (non-existent) reading stats. Should I read ten novellas straight afterwards to redress the balance? (Spoiler: I won’t.) Will I enjoy it? I hope so. Because reading shouldn’t be about cramming as many words into your poor overworked brain as is humanly possible—it should be about pleasure, knowledge, relaxation, wonder … qualities for which speed is irrelevant. So read at your own pace—whether that means you read one book a year, or one hundred.



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.