Yeah, But Do You Remember All 500?

January 5, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 12 Comments

Since I proclaimed to the world last year that I was going to read 500 books by New Year’s, I’ve had quite a few conversations on the topic.  The same comments come up each time:  “But that’s more than one a day!” and “Yeah, but do you remember anything when you’re finished?”  To the first I can only shrug – I read an average of about 375 pages a day last year, and many books aren’t that long.  I also read all day on most weekends.  The second question, whether any of those thousands of pages actually stuck in my mind, deserves a more thorough response.  After all, anyone could sit in a library or bookstore for a few hours, turning pages as fast as possible, and call it “reading.”

I want to talk about speed reading, first off.  I know how to speed-read, and I do it routinely when skimming through the news, looking through cookbooks, or doing initial-stage research.  I can pretty much take in a comic strip or photo caption in one glance.  I do not, however, consider speed-reading to be actual reading.  Maybe it works for others, but not for me.  My normal reading rate is maybe a page a minute, 20-30 pages an hour if it’s unusually complex or really dense type, and as fast as 80-100 pages an hour for children’s, YA, thrillers, or light genre fiction.  If you watch the Read-a-Thon you can estimate that there are people out there who can read something like 200-250 pages an hour.  I am bewildered by this – I don’t think I could even physically turn pages that fast, much less get anything out of them.

Making a target of “at least a book a day, and 10 by the end of the week” really helps focus one’s reading.  I refined this skill in 2008, when I read 409 books after setting a goal of 365.  The first step is to figure out how much you can read on an average day, and then save longer books for the weekend.  Say I finished a 250-page book, and it was only 10 PM; I would start something longer that night and then finish the rest the next day.  The reason this matters is that you tend to start finishing a book within a 24- to 36-hour period the majority of the time.

In the past, I always used to read several books at a time, and I chose them by wandering around and grabbing whatever caught my eye at the library.  I’ve changed both those habits for good.  In 2007 it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if I finished one book before starting another, and instantly I tripled the amount I could read.  Around that same period, I realized that the “best books” most likely were not on the shelf at the library, but in another reader’s hands.  I started seeking out particular books and putting them on hold or requesting them from other branches.  This also elevated my focus on the contents of what I was reading.

A strange thing happened.  I felt like I’d opened a door to a new dimension.

Reading several books at once requires a brief reorientation period each time you pick up a book you’ve set aside.  The same thing happens if you just haven’t had time to read at all for a while.  This is intensified if you’re reading multiple fiction works.  Which character is this, again?  What’s he doing?  Where are they?  Eugh?  Reading only one book in a brief window of time eliminates the need to tune back in.  Of course you’re tracking the plot and keeping all the characters straight; you’ve been following their exploits steadily for the past three hours.

There’s another level to this, though.  I’ve discovered from reading a huge amount of books one after the other that I get something completely different out of them now.  I’m much more able to pick out the theme, the structure, and what I consider to be the author’s message.  In book group once, I said, “I always ask myself ‘What was the author trying to say?  Why did he write this book?'”  Another member said, “I have never once asked myself that.”  It seems to me, from reading so many Amazon reviews and blog posts, that most readers read for plot and character, or an author’s writing style.  All these are perfectly fine.  Often, though, the reader complains that “the author failed to [X]” – meaning she didn’t enjoy the book or get much out of it – and I sit there thinking, “Wait, didn’t you understand…?”  To me there’s often an issue with readers missing the entire point of the book, a point that is indeed there to be found.

(And yes, I know how much you all hate it when someone says that).

Sometimes my husband will ask me what I’m reading, and I notice I’ll describe the book in a completely different style if I’m in the first few chapters than if I’m close to the end.  I avoid reading reviews or book jackets, because I loathe spoilers or advance information about the characters.  So I start out knowing almost nothing about the book, other than what source recommended it.  At the beginning, I’ll say something like, “This guy survived 9/11, and his wife is conducing a writing workshop for Alzheimer’s patients.”  (Falling Man by Don DeLillo).  At the end, I would say something more like, “It’s about an existential crisis and the power of art.”

While the theme or message of a particular book may have led to several running discussions with my dear Rocket Scientist, it’s a bit vague.  I do remember plots and characters, and sometimes great quotes too.  Each time I put a book down, I summarize it in my mind.  (When we start Family Reading Hour every night, I ask, “Okay, so where were we?” and force my audience to recap the plot points from last night).  I keep a spreadsheet of my reading, and I do the recap again as I log the book.  Periodically I will go through the entire list, and every so often I’ll skim down the previous year’s, too.  The goal is to try to recall the cover art, where I got the book, and what was going on when I read it, as well as who the characters were and what they were doing.  Occasionally this will bring out connections across books, like similar titles or time periods.

In my blog I’ve posted a handful of Daisy Chains.  This is where I’ll notice something random that connects one book to another, such as when I read three books in the same week that starred a character who had lost a twin sibling (broad), or two books in which a character had a bite mark on the same area of the body (narrow).  If you attempt this yourself, you’ll find that it takes real concentration on the details.  You’ll also find that it happens less often than you think, as long as you don’t count stuff like “characters with same hair color” or “characters cook dinner.”

A coworker challenged me a couple months ago, saying he couldn’t believe I could possibly get anything out of reading so many books so quickly.  He wanted to know if I could remember the fifth book back from what I was currently reading.  I had to list off the preceding four, and then I said, “Yes.  It was In This Our Life, by… Ellen Glasgow… and it won the Pulitzer for, I think, 1942.”  I went on to describe the main characters and what happened to them.  He sat back further in his chair and had to grant that I was indeed paying attention.  Go to the bookstore with me some time and we can play I Read That.

There are things I would not recommend about reading 500 books in a year (or 1052 in three years).  You’ll gain weight, your left eyelid may start to twitch, and you’ll wake up at the end realizing you could have written a book instead.  On the other hand, it has the advantages of concentrating your attention more on each individual book, enhancing your ability to evaluate in advance whether something is likely to be your type of book, and revealing layers and levels within your reading that you’d never before realized were there to appreciate.

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