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How to Read 462 Books a Year

Friday, January 23rd, 2009 | Posted by Bill Ward

Surprised by the dust on all those books you ‘just bought’ but haven’t gotten to yet? To-be-read pile threatening to topple and crush you under its weight? Tired of being left out of conversations about authors you haven’t read yet? Me too. All of this is common enough for any bibliophile, to varying degrees or another, and its nice that we can commiserate. That is, most of us can, but not all of us, for there is a strange breed that lives among us with the book-lover’s equivalent of superpowers — the hyperspeed reader.

Case in point, Sarah Weinman, columnist and reviewer for the LA Times online, read 462 books last year. That’s Four Hundred Sixty-Two. By any stretch of the definition, that’s a lot of books, and over qualifies Weinman for my rule-of-thumb classification of a hyperspeed reader: someone that averages more than a book a day. You can read an interview with Weinman about her remarkable feat over at the LA Times ‘Jacket Copy’ blog column.

Not being one of these hyperspeed readers, I am of course insanely jealous. I mean , I dedicate an enormous amount of time to reading, but my best run doesn’t even come half-way to matching Weinman’s year. However, resigned as I am that I can never match it — I just don’t think those sort of savant-level abilities can be trained in mid-life, if at all — the temptation is to, of course, analyze what she’s doing and conclude that she isn’t really enjoying those books fully, isn’t immersing herself in the joy of language and richness of an author’s style when she moves so quickly through each book. But I can’t really believe that, not based on what she’s said in her interview, and not based on anything other than my own naked envy. So, just what is it Weinman and the other hyperspeed readers are doing?

A few weeks ago I blogged about keeping book lists, and I hinted a bit at ways to build your reading muscles — book lists being one way to stoke the fires of enthusiasm and provide a framework for targeted reading (as well as being just fun to do). And Weinman’s description of her own reading ability reinforces something that I have also experienced, only she practices it at a far more extreme degree than I ever could. And that’s reading chunks of text divorced from sound.

What Weinman, and perhaps other super readers based on many of the comments at the end of the interview, can do is read large areas of text at once. In her own words:

What also seems to happen is that I read a page not necessarily word by word, but by capturing pages in sequence in my head. The words and phrases appear diagonally, like I’m absorbing the text all in one gulp, and then I move on to the next sequence I can absorb by paragraph or page. It’s like I’m reading from a whole-language standpoint instead of phonics — that’s the only way I can figure out how to explain it.

Weinman credits her musical education at an early age with helping attune her to cadence and rhythm, which almost seems paradoxical when you consider she is ‘reading without sound’ — that is absorbing text unrelated to the phonetics of the words. She also remarks that her brain seems to speed up the input she is getting, like switching a record from 33 ⅓ to 78. Somehow she’s appreciating the vital rhythm of language without hearing each word — which isn’t too surprising when you consider most of us who read beyond a certain speed must be doing the same thing. We just don’t do it anything like as fast as Sarah Weinman.

Which brings me back around to developing one’s reading muscles. While I strongly suspect no one can transform themselves from normal reader into hyperspeed reader, I know from experience that there are ways anyone can read faster without just skimming or skipping over text. I’ll talk about my own take on those next week, but I will say two things on that subject up front: my techniques are neither revolutionary nor systematic as they amount to essentially to just making yourself read faster, and reading for information retention and reading for fun are separate but overlapping spheres of experience and therefore you have to approach reading speed based on your goals and intentions.

And to answer the question posed by the title, ‘How to Read 462 Books a Year?’ Easy — be Sarah Weinman.

__________
BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.

13 Comments »

  1. Now that’s just unfair. I don’t read phonetically (which drives my wife crazy when it comes to proper names), but by pattern recognition, something I do very well. Yet I’m a very slow reader. The best I’ve managed was 60 books in a year. A lot of those were in the 40K-65K range, and I still had to push myself to accomplish it.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - January 23, 2009 12:02 pm

  2. […] Click here for ‘How to Read 462 Books a Year’ […]

    Pingback by Reading 462 Books in a Year — No, Really — BillWardWriter.com - January 23, 2009 12:38 pm

  3. Not fair at all, Jeff. I’ll talk a bit more about phonetic vs. ‘textual’ reading next week but I’m the same way as you and still read relatively slowly at more normal pace. I think while you and I might recognize a few words or a phrase in one ‘gulp,’ hyperspeed readers are gulping paragraphs and pages.

    Comment by Bill Ward - January 23, 2009 12:55 pm

  4. I used to be a speed reading teacher, so I know something about how this works. Essentially, once you break “sub-vocalization barrier” of about 650 words per minute, you can read incredibly fast with high comprehension if you train your eye mucles and synpases enough. However, since you are no longer “hearing” the words in your head, you don’t get the same effect from the language. This is what Weinman clusmily refers to as “reading without sound.” (Yes, there’s a term for it: “subvocalization barrier.”) I told my students to never break subvocalization in something they were reading for pleasure or to enjoy the effects of the prose. Sarah Weinman can understand what she’s reading, but my advice to her is “slow down.”

    I can read about 1300 words per minute, but only do that with nonfiction. In fiction, I always slow down to about 600 wpm, which still reads faster than most adults

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - January 23, 2009 1:27 pm

  5. I figured someone over here would know more about this than I do — and I’m not surprised it’s you, Ryan. 😉

    Next week I’ll just be talking about my experiences increasing reading speed without any formal techniques or much actual foundational understanding — but I’d love to hear your take on it and learn about some real speed reading techniques.

    And I know exactly what you mean about slowing down to savor your reading.

    Comment by Bill Ward - January 23, 2009 2:57 pm

  6. Sometimes I wish I could speed up to enjoy the story more. I’ve always compared what the current tale to other works, but now I find myself wondering how the author achieved said effect. This results in stopping and to check out sentence structure, verb use, and other write-brain stuff.

    It’s starting to make a regular novel read like an epic.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - January 23, 2009 6:26 pm

  7. Her advice to you Bill might be speed up, you are missing a lot of stuff. :)

    You certainly can learn to read faster, and it does involve being able to read bigger chunks of text at once, but like everything else, pretty sure some natural ability comes into play.

    Helps to be taught really early, too, probably. e.g. my parents started teaching me to read when I was 2.

    Comment by bluetyson - January 23, 2009 9:09 pm

  8. Some of the comments after her interview seemed to indicate that some people felt they could read like that partially because they were self-taught at an early age — and they sort of skipped any heavy phonics-based learning.

    Comment by Bill Ward - January 23, 2009 10:55 pm

  9. Sure, could be. I never read like that, certainly. Unless it was when I was 2-3 and don’t remember.

    People also say how it is easy (or much easier) to learn many languages if you do it younger, so maybe it is part of the whole brain thing then. Never read any research or anything as such, but makes sense I guess.

    Learning stuff young hence having lots and lots of practice applies in plenty of cases I suppose, music, sport, or whatever. The latter I have seen research on that suggested lots of repetitions of lots of different sporting activities at a young enough age increased the chances of getting really good at something in particular in that area.

    Comment by bluetyson - January 24, 2009 2:05 am

  10. […] read this post from Bill Ward, where a woman read 462 books in a year! That’s more than a book a day. It was […]

    Pingback by Benjamin Solah, Marxist horror writer » I must read more! - January 25, 2009 2:00 am

  11. […] Ward has a couple of articles (at his own blog and at Black Gate) on the subject of speed-reading, with special reference to a columnist/reviewer who ripped through […]

    Pingback by Book stuff « FROM A SCI-FI STANDPOINT - January 28, 2009 7:41 pm

  12. […] speed I have managed to develop has only really emerged later in life, and only with effort. Last week I linked to an interview with columnist and reviewer Sarah Weinman, who is what I labeled a […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » How to Read More Books - January 30, 2009 1:01 pm

  13. […] Bill Ward recently posted two articles on “hyperspeed reading,” the first a reaction to columnist Sarah Weinman’s claim of reading 462 books in a year, and the second taking a deeper look into reading speed. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Confessions of a Speed-Reading Instructor - February 3, 2009 3:40 am


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