Hours of each day pass where I encounter nothing truly memorable on my computer or phone. What was I just reading five minutes ago? I genuinely couldn’t tell you. My little rat brain glances upon a screen, processes a tweet and tosses it straight into my mental paper shredder.
But when I read a physical book for fun, things slow down. I hear the words in my head, visualize the scenes being described, pause to contemplate the paragraph I’ve just consumed. It takes forever, but it’s an almost luxurious change of pace.
In high school, this way of reading frustrated me: I wanted to be productive, to work smarter not harder. In my mind, reading slow was reading dumb. I wasn’t alone in this: In 1942, Gerald Barnes, an academic at Boston University, published an essay titled “Are Slow Readers Stupid?” in the Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors. Although the article goes on to explain that several highly intelligent people read slowly and that often, their profession requires it, the title alone suggests the problem many of us have with the idea of reading slowly — that is, we think it makes us stupid.
There’s plenty of current cultural reinforcement to back this up thinking. Recently, reading speed was a topic of debate following the popularity of Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite. As the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, many viewers were gaining fresh experience with subtitles as they watched, but not everyone could keep up with the words at the bottom of the screen, leading some to argue that dubbed movies are better. One article from Mother Jones expressing this sentiment was torn apart mostly for its cultural insensitivity, but also because it indicated that the writer must also be a slow reader, and therefore, ought to be embarrassed about it.
While subtitles are their own beast in that the pace is beyond your control, the sentiment remains the same: If you can’t read as fast as everyone else, there’s something wrong with you. But there’s not much indication that this is actually true.
Carla Sosenko has been an editor for the last 15 years — currently the Features Director for US Weekly, she formerly served as the Editor in Chief of Time Out New York. For much of her career, though, she’s copyedited, which essentially means painstakingly combing through each piece slated to be published for typos, grammatical mistakes, tone incongruities and other flaws. At work, Sosenko says she reads relatively quickly, though she usually reads through a piece multiple times in order to catch problems. When reading for pleasure, though, she says it varies.
“I believe I read the words on the page pretty quickly if I enjoy it,” she says. “It took me a full year to read a recent novel — for some reason, I wasn’t engaged. I’d pick it up now and then, and it was like work. Whereas I recently read the book Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, it’s a huge tome, maybe 500 pages, but I flew through it. I think I read it in a week. The speed at which I read is directly proportional to how much I enjoy something.”
Which seems like it’s probably true for most of us (think how long it takes you to read a tax form versus something you don’t have to force-feed your eyeballs). But what sets up our reading style in the first place?
When we first learn to read, we’re taught to sound out the letters, putting them together phonetically. This sets us up with a little voice in our head. So whether we realize it or not, most of us are reading at the same speed we’d be able to speak the words aloud, at about 300 words per minute. However, “speed reading” courses, software, YouTube videos and books allege that our brain is capable of recognizing words and meanings much faster than this. If you can train yourself to process text without that inner voice, you’d hypothetically be able to read much faster.
Is that any fun, though? As high school me quickly learned after attempting to speed read The Epic of Gilgamesh, speed reading feels absolutely laborious. I remember quite a bit of what I had to read in high school, but whatever ole Gilgamesh and his pals were up to has long since left my head. I’m confident that my speed reading kick is responsible.
Today, I don’t feel bad about how long it might take me to finish a book, or even the decision to pick an audiobook, instead. Your brain doesn’t even really know the difference. I don’t care much for dubbing myself, but if that’s what you need to watch Parasite, more power to you.