Is It Possible To Read A Book Too Fast?

The problem with reading is that books go by too quickly. Or am I reading too fast?

I’ve always been a fast reader. I taught myself to read at age two, which sounds more impressive than it is. A bored toddler will do ANYTHING for entertainment, and I probably figured out that it was much more entertaining than listening to grown-ups. Come to think of it, I still feel that way…

Most of the books available to me were also for grownups. I cut my teeth on Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and had more than one steamy romance novel ripped out of my hands for reasons I would only discover later. Gradually I gained more children’s books, of the Dr. Seuss and Little Golden Books variety.

I was notorious at the local library. The juvenile books were color-coded by reading level. I zipped through yellow, blue, and red, then got special permission from the beaming librarians to access the chapter books. Later I became the only kid allowed to venture across the Sacred Threshold to the section of the library reserved for adults.

(Tips on how to ingratiate yourself to librarians: Always be super-polite, never put books away on the wrong shelves, and don’t try to sneak in snacks when they’re not looking. Asking them for recommendations will get you bonus points, but you really start unlocking the achievements when you start recommending books to them.)

My tastes gravitated from an initial childhood love of mysteries (Nancy Drew! Trixie Belden!) toward fantasy and science fiction. I think that’s when I started to speed-read. I wasn’t trying to race through the books. I kept finding series that were so addictive that I couldn’t wait to get to the next one.

It’s probably Mercedes Lackey’s fault. I was barely thirteen, and what was the first book I encountered in the fantasy genre? A novel about a brown-haired teenage girl who is ostracized by her family, loves to read, and bonds to a magical white not-horse with a flowing silver mane that spirits her away to a new life. Oh, like I was ever going to be able to resist THAT. Especially since the second fantasy series I read was Pern…

In high school I read a novel a day. Time wasn’t a problem given my absolute lack of social life. I got busted by a substitute science teacher once. He made me hand over the book, took one look at it and said, “I can’t punish a student for reading Isaac Asimov in physics class.” Thank you, Foundation’s Edge!

But, looking back, I have to wonder if I was reading too fast. Sometimes I missed things that I picked up on later, which worked fine for Valdemar and Pern since I read the covers off both series. Books I only read once, I probably missed the nuances.

This came to mind recently as I finished reading George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire (aka Game Of Thrones). It was the first fantasy series I picked up during my sabbatical and I figured I should check it out, given what a HUGE Beauty and the Beast fan I remain to this day (except for season 3 thankyouverymuch).

GRRM is not easy reading. It’s not necessarily even pleasant reading. I had to take my time, puzzle things out, try to remember which characters were allied with whom at any particular moment. Part of that is GRRM, because Westeros is an incredibly expansive and detailed universe. Part of it is lack of familiarity. I’m older, with more distractions, and I find that I miss too much if I read unfamiliar things fast.

Other things I still devour. At the moment I’m reading Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms for the first time, and sprinting through it. But then, that’s Mercedes Lackey. She’s one of my favorite authors and I am used to her style. It’s the same with Pern even though Todd McCaffrey is now writing it. I know the universe, I’m comfortable in it. I can read quickly and still get the most out of the book, especially knowing I will be rereading it along with the rest of its siblings in the series.

Do you find you read faster or slower depending on what you’re reading? Do you consume your favorite series like candy or do you savor them slowly? Share in the comments!

My Love Affair With The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

Today’s the anniversary of the first Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio show. How did you first become enamored with that wholly remarkable book?

I discovered Hitchhiker’s in the library of the stodgy girls’ school I attended. Think Catholic school, minus the Catholic but plus plus on the plaid uniforms. As you can guess, the library was dull enough to bring a tear to Giles’s eye (but a bit short on demonology texts for his tastes, I’d imagine). There were the obligatory copies of Emily Dickenson, a bust of Margaret Mead on the table, inspirational “reading is FUNdamental” posters on the walls.

And, way in the back, a whole shelf of science fiction.

Somebody in that school was a serious closet SF fan. It was like a hidden message for future likeminded students, a little cache of bliss among fifty-year-old copies of Great Expectations*. Besides Hitchhiker’s, there was Asimov’s The Caves Of Steel which introduced me to his Robots novels, some Heinlein juveniles including Podkayne of Mars – as well as Stranger In A Strange Land, which proves no real librarian ever looked at that shelf or they would have spirited such naughty tomes away from the innocent eyes of us young ladies.

I’d already become addicted to SFF through Star Trek, Buck Rogers, and the original Battlestar Galactica. Finding Hitchhiker’s was like a fresh delivery of lemon-soaked paper napkins. The library card filled with my initials. I went out and bought what was then a trilogy, in both book and audio form. I could quote parts from memory. My stodgy school became accustomed to the girl who wandered around muttering about Frogstar Fighters. They called me a nerd, but I didn’t care. The fact that somebody had written a bestselling series like Hitchhiker’s proved that I wasn’t the only one who thought science fiction was fun.

I must have discovered Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide around the same time (insert irony here), because I can’t remember which one I fell in love with first. I do remember that we didn’t get the Douglas Adams episodes for ages thanks to the ridiculous policies of our local PBS station, so by the time I saw The Pirate Planet I was already addicted to Hitchhiker’s. Part of the allure was the quintessential Britishness of it, during the 1980s when everything British was kewl. (I was am also a huge Duran Duran fan, which probably contributed to my infatuation.)

But there was something special about Hitchhiker’s. You couldn’t read it and not laugh your ass off. It was the perfect diversion because it was so ridiculous, so witty, and so British. The latter, as I discovered, doesn’t really translate. I bought a foreign language copy in France, in which Zaphod becomes Zippy Bibicy (as in, BBC) and Ford Prefect is Ford Escort because apparently that’s funnier in French. It just wasn’t the same. As Mickey Smith comments in the Doctor Who episode The Chrismas Invasion (which itself is an homage to Hitchhiker’s), if the world was ending the British would have tea. That’s a very Hitchhiker’s sentiment.

Over thirty years later, Hitchhiker’s has become such a part of our culture here in the U.S. that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know the meaning of the number 42 or the phrase “Don’t Panic!” Take some time today to celebrate The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, before that Frogstar Fighter Class D comes to get you.

* Don’t get me wrong. I like classic literature, just not Dickens. I’m more of your Mark Twain type. Sorry, Vincent.