My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

How I read so much

The year is almost over, and unless I finish a book tomorrow, it looks like I will end 2011 with 115 books read. Not too shabby, I suppose. Far cry from my goal, which was to tie with 2009’s best of 156 books. But still pretty good, all things considered. Indeed, from time to time people exclaim their awe at how much I read. I don’t like to draw too much attention to the quantity, which is after all no indicator of quality, because it feels too much like bragging. But today someone on Goodreads asked me how I manage to read so much, and as I was composing my reply, I realized it was getting too lengthy. Lengthy enough for a blog post, in fact.

It’s quite simple. I have a time machine, you see, and that allows me to go back in time and spend more time reading throughout the day….

Well, I wish that weren’t so much science fiction!

Last year, which was a very good year for me, I averaged 2.6 days per book; this year I have been slightly busier, so I took 3.1 days per book. Considering that most people, i.e., people who do not bother joining a social networking site about books, are probably lucky if they read 10 or 15 books in a year, I suppose I do read quite a bit. However, I’m far from abnormal—some of my friends here are up to the 200s when it comes to books, and I suspect they must be speed-readers.

I am nothing of the sort. I probably do skim quite a bit, by which I mean that my reading comprehension has developed to a point where I don’t have to focus my eyes on every single word in order to get the gist of a passage. The way that the human brain and the human eyes interact is really quite amazing and not very much like a camera. I suspect (because I Am Not a Neurologist) that my practice reading means that my brain can predict what words will be before they have fully registered. Indeed, when I encounter an unfamiliar word I do tend to “stumble” and slow down (while I pull out my dictionary!). I know I’m not a speed reader because I still need to focus carefully when I read technical, academic, or legal documents where rigorous attention to the word choice is more important.

My “secret” is a patent-pending formula discovered through years of careful, painstaking research, including an ill-fated expedition to a Tibetan monastery long thought lost to the ravages of time and war. And, for the low payment of $99.95, or three easy payments of $39.95, you can have it too….

I don’t have much of a secret. When people ask me how I manage to read so much, the answer is always the same: I make reading a priority. I allocate a great deal of my free time to reading, more so than almost anything else. And this has been true for a long time. I read a lot when I was a kid, and I’ve continued this habit my entire life. That doesn’t mean you can’t start reading voraciously now—but like any skill, reading becomes easier with experience.

Also, keeping track of your reading helps too. Goodreads has been really good for me in that regard; I’m a lot more aware of which books I read in a year and which ones I want to read next. I’m not saying you need to review every book like I do; you don’t even have to join a site like Goodreads (though I certainly recommend it!). But even just keeping a list of which books you’ve read each year, and looking it over every few months so you can see your progress, might help. You could even develop a goal. You might choose to try to read a certain number of books in a year. One of my friends is working her way through the BBC’s list of top 100 novels as voted by readers.

Of course, I also have to admit that I probably program my life in such a way that I have more free time to read. I am lucky enough to be financially stable right now (I still live with my dad). I don’t find my schoolwork particularly challenging, and with the possible exception of this year, it has never felt time-consuming either. Most people seem to engage in a dazzling array of extracurricular activities, including sports, music, and volunteering. I don’t do many of those things, and while I feel that has sheltered me in many respects, I also recognize that my vast experience reading has opened my eyes to new worlds. So while I don’t have the same experiences as my peers, I wouldn’t necessarily say mine have been of inferior quality. But it’s definitely the case that I make time to read, because for me, reading is a priority.

This year, my final year of my undergrad, has given me a taste of what I might suspect once I get a full-time job. In the five weeks of my practicum I only read three books. Terrifying! And one of my instructors mentioned that most of the teachers he knows only have time to read a few books while they are on break during the summer. I certainly hope my own personal drive to read shields me from such misfortune!

The person on Goodreads whose question prompted this post also mentioned that he reads audiobooks and probably couldn’t listen fast enough to match my pace, even at double speed. When people ruminate on how they can read more, I do tend to suggest audiobooks as a part of the solution. Audiobooks are awesome: you can listen to them “on the go” in the car, while you’re exercising, or while you’re cleaning or cooking. They are excellent for people who just don’t have the time to sit with a book for an hour (or even half an hour) a day. Even so, I tend not to listen to many myself. Even with the ability to alter the playback speed, audiobooks are a little too much like a movie or television show: you go at their pace, not the other way around. Books, among all our entertainment devices, have a marvellous and singular capability to take as long as you desire. You might choose to devour a good book in an afternoon, or draw out the pleasure for a few days. This is one of my favourite things about reading, and it’s the one aspect that audiobooks, for all their advantages, do not replicate.

Some people spend so much time gaming they turn it into a lifestyle, even a career. Others become master speedcubers, or Olympic-class athletes. We all have our talents and our interests. Reading is mine. And at the rate my to-read list has been growing in these years since I joined Goodreads, I wish I could read even faster! No matter how many books you read in a year, however, the fact that you are reading is pretty amazing. Keep it up.