speed-reading April 06


I Should Read More Carefully…and Other Things I Know I’ll Never Do by Elizabeth Stavis

I have a theory about reading–the way you read a book mirrors the way you live your life.  I’m not just talking about what kind of book you like to read, though I’m sure that correlates to personality as well.  I’m talking about the physical act of reading.  Are you fast and furious?  Slow and careful?  Do you take notes and highlight and dog-ear corners, or leave your books pristine?  Is every book a new read or do you like to return to favorites again and again?


My husband and I illustrate this parallel between reading and living.  I, for example, love to finish books.  I mean literally to get to the end of them.  I love to find out what happens in the plot of a novel, or to feel like I learned all of the information in a non-fiction book, or to read the summation in an essay.  There’s a satisfaction upon ending a book that is separate from the actual pleasure of the reading.  A sense of closure, of completion: did that!


I don’t think it’s the best way to be a reader.  I wish I read more slowly, savoring the words.  But no matter how many times I think, just enjoy this paragraph/chapter/moment, my eyes surreptitiously slide over to the page numbers, wondering how much I’ll get through that night.


My speedy-reading reflects my approach to life.  Nothing is more satisfying than checking off a task…except maybe checking off many tasks.  It’s been a good day if I’ve whittled my list down to nearly nothing.  I get a lot done, but often by doing too many things at the same time, and then doing them poorly, shoddily, with my brain already thinking about the next job.  I often wish I could slow down and stay in the moment.


My husband is the opposite.  He reads almost epically slowly.  But also carefully.  The last novel he read took him months to finish, because he had to go back to the prequel to reference characters and events, he had to return to the map to get a sense of the setting, he had to look up critiques about symbolism and themes.


I read that novel too.  As he read, he tried to talk to me about all of his discoveries, but I could barely remember any of the connections he was so excited about.  Did you even read this book? he laughed at one point.
In life, he is similarly slow and methodical.  Everything is done with care, and only one thing should be done at a time.  Instruction manuals are carefully read before starting a project, and every tool has its own place.  He has separate towels for drying the kitchen counter vs. drying the dishes, with the theory that dishes should be totally clean and the counter may not be as pristine.  I agree with his logic, even as I grab whichever towel (often NOT the right towel) happens to be most convenient at the time.


Then there is the act of rereading.  My husband loves to reread.  I’ve seen his favorite fantasy and biographical novels on the nightstand again and again.


He loves the books, but he also loves the comfort of the familiar.  He re-watches movies, he eats the same thing for lunch every day, he goes to a yoga class that hasn’t changed its routine the whole time he’s been going.  For him, doing something again means getting to know it even better, becoming an expert.  Rereading books is like meeting up with an old friend.


I don’t reread anything.  Most of my books I give away upon completion–we have to make room for the next set!  I have a small shelf of classics I like to keep for nostalgia’s sake–the Harry Potter series I devoured in high school, the A Little Prince book that my brother inscribed for me, and Paris to the Moon, which I read right before visiting the city.  I love these books, but I don’t love to reread them.  I cracked open Paris to the Moon a few years ago, and realized I felt very different reading it now that I wasn’t a 19 year old dreaming of going to the city of lights.  I knew what was in the memoir, there was no sense of discovery.  I put it down, disappointed.  Better to keep the book a warm memory.


Of course, the kinds of books we love–nonfiction vs. narrative, short vs. long, intellectual vs. pop–say something about us as people as well.  But our habits of reading–our approach to books–also reveal our personalities.  I wish I were the kind of person who read closely, picking out all of the nuggets in a novel.  Or who picked up old friends to reread.  But I’m not.  I’m the kind who likes to get books done, who reads to discover something new, who’s constantly on the lookout for the next great book.  That’s my reading personality.  I’ll have to leave the careful reading–and careful doing–to my husband and the other, detailed, meticulous people of the world.


Elizabeth Stavis is a reading intervention specialist in Santa Clara Unified, CA.  She can’t fall asleep without reading, and frequently amuses her husband with her inability to remember what she read just a few days after reading it.  She writes in bursts of activity followed by long months of silence at elizabethstavis.com.