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Speed Chills Special Pleasures of Reading


Most people envy speed readers.

In the time it takes to finish one book, literary speed-demons have plowed through several. Watching such readers devour an armload of books a week, it is easy to grow resentful.

But before we place speed readers on a pedestal, we might do well to consider the bad habits of these so-called good readers. Just what are rushing readers doing to get through all these books?

Speaking from my own experience as an avid reader and an English teacher at Santa Monica High School for 25 years, I can say with reasonable assurance that such readers don't always make the most of the books that pass through their hands.

Here's why. Reckless readers:

* Obviously value speed over reflection. Such readers seldom pause between books to think about what they have read. They reach for the next one without taking a breath. It's as if they are addicted to the act;

* Skip anything they find boring. Unlike "inexpert" readers, these speed readers feel free to sidestep any passage that interrupts the flow of a story. They skim descriptive pages and altogether skip embedded poetry or quotations, for example the medieval tale within Edgar Allan Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher";

* Are so confident of their own abilities to plow through text, they'll put off assignments in school or work to read for pleasure. At school, for instance, I've known students who end up performing poorly on tests because they sneak the latest Barbara Kingsolver novel inside their chemistry textbooks;

* Rush through classroom writing assignments to get back to their books. As a result, these readers are often poor writers and careless spellers;

* Can get stuck reading one particular kind of book.

While avid readers often achieve the highest levels on standardized tests, this isn't the full measure of a thoughtful bookworm. With guidance, they can be taught to read more deeply and get more out of their books.

I recall my own first reading of Zora Neal Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God." As usual, I had barreled through the novel at breakneck speed and went to my book club meeting wondering what all the fuss was about.

Fortunately I didn't make a fool of myself (as I might have done at 16) by declaring the book boring.

Instead I kept my mouth shut and listened to what other readers had to say. It dawned on me as they spoke with such insight, comparing the main character's travels to a classic hero's journey, that I had missed quite a bit.

It seemed, in fact, that I had missed it all. I reread the book and had a greater appreciation for Hurston's artistry.


Along with teaching, Carol Jago directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. Her recent book is "With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students." She can be reached at

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