My Difficulty with Speed Reading and an Unlikely Solution in Audio Books

When I get going, I probably cruise along at an average reading speed. I’ve never tried to measure my reading speed in any scientific way (which, I suppose, is unusual since I measure just about everything else about myself). I read a lot and it might seem to those looking in from outside that I read quickly, but that is an illusion caused mostly by the fact that reading is the water that fills in the jar of pebbles that makes up my day. Reading is my default mode. Put another way: when I am not otherwise occupied, I am reading.

But the actual speed at which I read is mostly constant with one quirky exception: my reading picks up speed as I approach the exciting conclusion of whatever book I happen to be reading.

Maybe this happens to you and maybe it doesn’t, but my own personal brand of speed reading is a kind of steady increase in pace as the excitement picks up at the conclusion of a book, until it seems as if I am simply zipping past each page barely seeing the words. I finish the way a sprinter finishes a race, out of breath and with the last push one big blur.

This alone convinces me that speed-reading techniques would be completely lost on me. The thing is, while I race through the end of the book, I do so by gestalt, and not be that calm, leisurely absorption of each word on the page. And that is a problem, because the ending of books are often much more of a blur to me than the 90% of narrative that comes before. I wish that I could maintain the same pace that I maintain through the rest of the book, but the excitement rushes me along. I turn pages, skimming, desperate to know what happens next. In doing so, I sacrifice the details and the beauty of language in an effort to swallow the plot whole.

I’ve lived with this problem my entire life, as far as I can recall, and I’ve never discovered an adequate solution–until I began listening to audio books a few weeks ago.

For instance, I recently finished “reading” my first audio bookMisery by Stephen King. The book is read by actress Lindsay Crouse and she is an excellent reader. (Indeed, I enjoyed her reading so much that I am now listening to her narrate Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game.) I’d never read the book before but I’d seen the movie a long time ago when it first came out. Fortunately, I’d forgotten most of that and found the book fascinating and engaging–to say nothing of a page turner. Except, there were no pages to turn! I was listening to the book. Perhaps the most amazing part of this experience was when I got to that last ten percent or so of the book and reached the climactic conclusion. In the ordinary course of events, my own reading would have accelerated, zipping beyond my ability to keep up with every word, so that I would have been skimming and getting only vague images.

But I was listening to Linday Crouse read. And despite the exciting conclusion, the pace of her reading didn’t change.

And so, for the first time in recent memory, I was treated to an exciting conclusion in which I did not lose control and speed ahead, but instead continued to “read” at the same pace. The images were much sharper. I caught onto things–little details–that I would certainly have missed if I’d been reading it on the screen or page. And it was a wonderfully full experience (to say nothing of a surprisingly good book).

From this, one might gather that the solution to my problem is listening to audio books instead of reading the books themselves. I see it another way. By listening to audio book, I can learn to better pace my inner reader; learn to hold back when I feel the need to suddenly speed up; learn to better identify when the words are moving by so quickly that the images begin to blur. And maybe, after some practice, I won’t speed through the endings of books in such a mad rush that the overall effect is diluted.

It never occurred to me that listening to an audio book would serve any other purpose than allowing me to read while doing other things. But boy oh boy, what a revelation this first book has been to me. I imagine my reading experience overall will only get better from here on out.