Sunday 17 January 2010

Had We Worlds Enough and Time

Now here's a question.

The week I've spent with Best Served Cold has seen me through roughly two-thirds of its 550 pages. I've gone a day here and there without delving into Abercrombie's cruel, merciless world, granted, but on those days when I have, I've read for long stretches; a hour at the least, three or four in a single sitting if outside circumstances have allowed it. In total, I've been wrapped up in Monza's ruthless quest for vengeance for about 16 hours.

When all is said and done, I think it's fair to extrapolate that I'll have spent a full day reading this book. And I know that to be unusual. It pains me to admit, but I'm a notoriously slow reader. Particularly given how omnivoracious I am in terms of fiction, in fact - not to mention film, video games and the other media I have an appetite for - my ever-so gradual march through Best Served Cold, much as I'm enjoying it now, frustrates the hell out of me.

In my younger years, when J. K. Rowling had the literary zeitgeist all to herself, I'd hear of readers devouring one of her latterly massive Harry Potter novels in the wee hours between the midnight launches they'd attended and sunup the next morning. I remember avoiding newspapers and the internet entirely for a week after The Half-Blood Prince so as not to have it spoiled for me while I gobbled my gradual way through it. I still haven't read The Deathly Hallows because, despite my efforts, some spoilsport ruined that novel's ending while I was still on the third chapter.

The sheer length of some novels is all it takes for me to overlook them. If it hadn't been for one recommendation after another, I don't know that I'd have read The Name of the Wind; often, when it comes time to choose my next book, I'll opt for the shorter selection simply for the fact that I'll be able to get to the rest quicker. Vast tomes will sit on my shelves for months, even years at a time, unread only because I know it'll be weeks before the stories contained therein are over. These are decisions I make before they've even begun; I can hardly express how much I resent myself for giving into them once and again.

And another thing. The staggering investment of time it would require for me to see through epic SF&F series such as A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and the late Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time cycle means that, well... I just haven't tried. I'm sure I'd love them, but I'd be able to read nothing else for so long that I can't quite justify sacrificing all the other fiction I'd miss in so doing.

It can be a real problem, then, reading so slowly, and much as I wish I could make rush headlong through Abercrombie's latest - the better to get to the mounting pile of promising speculative literature that awaits me when Best Served Cold is over - I tell myself that the snail's pace I set when I sit down with a good book also has its advantages.

Five years at Uni dealing with intimidating reading lists for a myriad of English units have left me perfectly capable of skimming through fiction, but honestly, now that I read for my own pleasure, I'd rather not ruin a good narrative by glossing over the depth and texture that I think gradual progress grants. Worlds come alive in new ways when you pore over every detail, imagining the scene before you as if it were painted rather than written. With every word spoken or thought, characters become more complex, more substantial, more relatable than the imperfect impressions a speedy read-through results in. Pages dense with description and exposition - the very sort you'd gloss over if you were reading for any reason other than the innate pleasure of the act itself - can prove vital to a proper understanding of the text in question, developing technique, tone and atmosphere, those intangible literary imperatives that can make or break a book.

I'm deeply suspicious of people who can devour an epic novel in the space of a day, but let me be clear: I certainly don't mean to suggest that if you read faster than I do - and who doesn't? - you're reading wrong, somehow. A thousand thousand factors can and do play into the time it takes for a person to make the great journey from prologue to epilogue, the innumerable concerns of real life and making ends meet not least among them. On the other hand, when I see here and there across the speculative community bloggers who boast of the hundreds of novels they read in 2009 - not to speak of those who manage as many in a month, and they're out there - I can't help but feel a little inadequate.

I love to read. There are few activities in life that I value more highly. I wish with every fibre of my being that each day was a few hours longer that I might spend the precious extra time with my nose buried in one book or another. Every year I resolve to read more than I did the year before. Most years, I manage, but there's never enough time to get to everything I'd like.

But I had a question to pose to you, and for all my meandering, it's a simple one, perhaps deceptively so: how do you read?

This needn't be a pissing contest. Let's just take as given that I read at rougly the same rate as a third-grader, and go from there. I'd be very interested to hear how you go about setting the stage for a long night with a good book, too. Do you listen to music, for instance? Bake a choice few snacks? Soft lighting, a movie soundtrack in my headphones and a nice cup of tea suits me right down to the ground.

Consider it open mic night at The Speculative Scotsman.

To that end, dear readers: over to you...


  1. These days I'm also a slow reader.

    The start of the book is usually the slowest going. I'll read a chapter or two, set the book aside until tomorrow. Somewhere in the middle, I'll speed up because I'm more invested in the story. Usually 1/4 to the end I'll be sitting in the near dark late at night only moving because otherwise I'll get a cramp.

    Other than that, nothing special. I'll read anywhere, eating, sitting, walking, and on the rare occasion, even in the bathtub.

  2. I am a gobbler of books, I read at a fairly fast pace,but read much less now than I did before kids. I generally have two or three books on the go at once.If I am not drawn in right away I will keep going for a while, some books take their time to ensnare you, but I generally know if I am going to enjoy the ride and if I really do love it I will finish it in one go even if that means an all nighter.I don't think I have ever gone to bed and not read at least a chapter. A cup of tea, a glass of wine, a nice malt... curled up on the sofa or at the table in the garden, children hopefully content elsewhere.. bliss.

  3. Every month I put together a list of books I want to read. Mostly six books. I don't know why but this month I'm a slow reader. I'm reading Drood by Dan Simmons (definitely one of my 2010 top reads) for more than a week. Even it has 771 pages I should have finished it by now. Normally I try to find three hours per day for reading. Sometimes it is difficult due to my work.

  4. It's a great topic, this. I am no slow reader (last year I read over 90 books and I considered it a slow year because I got bogged down for a month or so in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle - now there is a cycle of books that comprise huge tomes, but deserve wallowing through because of the sheer amount of detail).

    I skim read, I guess, to get through books that fast. It is good for me, because I want to read as much as possible, but it does mean that as little as days after I've finished a book I can only remember sketchy details. The positive is that I can pick up a book for a second and third time and read it again with as much enjoyment - not remembering some of the little plot twists - and each time picking out some new detail I missed the first time.

    The type of reading that, frankly, baffles me is where readers handle two or more books at a time. I can only immerse myself in one book at a time, so that linear process means I am much slower than others I've seen on the blogosphere!

    I read anywhere and everywhere, but my favourite place by far is the bath! Can't be distracted by anything else; can ignore the mess my house sometimes gets to be; no one can march in and demand for time for 'just a minute'. Bliss!

  5. I'm glad to hear that you like to take your time with books. There seems to be a culture these days to read as many books as possible, which I don't think does the reader or the writer any justice.

    I must say, the writing eats up a good deal of what used to be reading time. And the internet eats away at a lot too, which I'm trying to control (not easy when you're watching any debate).

    Some days I'm lucky, though, and get a day to spend reading. Other than that, I'm craving train and plane journeys...

  6. I'm pretty much always reading (benefits of being a US Politics PhD student and diverse reading interests). When it comes for reading for pleasure, I'm lucky in that I enjoy my subject and would read about it regardless of whether or not I was studying it. When it comes to fiction, I do sometimes feel guilty about reading the larger books, because I feel that I should be reading work books, or just reading quicker. When I have to submit a chapter (as I just did), or if I have a particularly busy teaching week, then my fiction reading plummets considerably and my reviewing goes into something of a dormant state.

    I've always felt like I read painfully slowly. I have a tendency to read every word (which means I spot typos all the damn time) - if an author feels it needs to be there, then it deserves to be read!

    It's also dependent on the book, I guess. Some larger tomes frustrate me because I too have a huge pile of books that need reading and reviewing (many of which I received from publishers), so I feel that I'm neglecting others, which can make me irrationally resent a perfectly innocent and enjoyable book. Equally, if an author has written a great plot and story, but gets too bogged down in detail, I will frequently jump ahead or skim-read (which I didn't used to do).

    If a book truly hooks my imagination and attention, then it doesn't matter how long it is, I'll just keep reading until it's done. The 4th-7th Harry Potters, for example, I kept reading until done, with either no or little sleep, but it still took me a while. James Clavell's "Tai-Pan" was the same, and also Scott Lynch's "Lies of Locke Lamorra" and "Red Seas Under Red Skies" (which I read as a pair).

    Train and plane journeys are blissful, because there's really nothing else to do, so I feel like I'm perfectly justified to read then. In fact, I specifically do nothing else - headphones in, book out, leave me alone sort of thing.

    I try to mix genres, and also mix book-sizes when reading. One small, one large - one thriller, one fantasy.

  7. I used to read prolifically, but then I used to have an abundance of spare time (trans. NO LIFE). Now I have a life with 2 boys under 5 and a full time paid job & another full time unpaid job, being wife & mother. At the end of each day I am, frankly, spent. I have a pile of books by the bed, and probably 2 nights a week I return to the latest read before falling asleep. I arrange the pillows, get comfortable and read until I find myself backtracking & re-reading sentences & paragraphs because I was too tired to get the gist of what was trying to be expressed or just plain too tired. I usually start at 8:30pm after the boys are in bed (& provided there is nothing captivating on TV) & make a rule of turning off the light at 10:30 - no matter how gripping the current chapter is. Otherwise I just have to re-read it again. I read slowly: Steig Larsson's Millenium series has taken me nearly 5 months and I still haven't finished, even though I think it's excellent. Next on the list is a Matt Riley offering which, from past works, needs be a quick read simply for the adrenaline it generates. I could change my mind of course and re-read some old favourites. :o)
    Both of the above are not in your genre's of choice but perhaps you might venture there one day. But I believe you would like George R.R. Martin's Ice & Fire series. Really you would. Failing that, you could always brave the Kushiel's Dart trilogy. Cheers, Black_Dog_Diary

  8. A good question! It all depends for me, if it's a book that I've been waiting for and the prose is to my taste then I can devour a book in a day or two. If it's done in a style that I struggle with then it will take anywhere up to a couple of weeks, or longer.

    Each author is unique and while I can read some over and over again with no qualms (Peter F Hamilton), others can make reading a struggle, but still rewarding (Alastair Reynolds).

    I feel a blog post coming on...

  9. I'm the opposite - I just can't stop rushing through books. It doesn't matter when they come from the library, but if I'm buying them (especially when I'm taking them abroad) I'm as likely to buy something for its general resemblance to a doorstop as for the brilliant reviews I've read about it.

    One of the main reasons I kept up with my Spanish after university was because reading in another language slowed me down and I'd actually get more than a day out of a deserving book.....

  10. I like Mark Chitty's response and I think I'm pretty similar there.

    I can read some things really fast, but with my leisure reading, I really make it leisure time. I take my time with the book, savoring everything and totally immerse myself. There's no sense in rushing because this is exactly what I want to be doing.

    I also tend to read anywhere and everywhere. If I go out without a book, it's only because I've forgotten and that would be a sad day. It's nice because any line, wait, etc. becomes a time to do exactly what I want to be doing.


  11. Like you, I tend to read slower. I like to think of it as a function not of a slow mind, but a mind tuned, thanks to a university education in English, a love of words, language, and the ability to read and spot just what an author is up to on so many different levels. This may help: To get through epic tomes and series (by the way, please start A Song of ICe and Fire, Im interested to hear what you think), I deliberatly set a quota for each day. I read fifty pages of the series for that day, then I'm off to other books. This way the anxiety that I might be missing out on a good book is lessened and the I am not limited in the fictional landscape. When I read A Song of Ice and Fire I also read several Forgotten Realms books as well as two of the Old Man's War books by John Scalzi. Try it, it might help.

  12. Late to the party, woohoo!

    I've a blasted addiction to the internet, so that proves a distraction to my reading. Most of the books I read these days are on the short side, from novella length to usually around the three hundred - four hundred page range. As it stands now, I probably finish a book a week, but if I manage to ignore everything (usually in the case of a really good book), then two or three days is usually the maximum. Every once in a while I will come across a short novel that takes me weeks to read though.

    The amount of books I read last year is somewhere in the lower sixties and I intend to read more than that this year, but I don't rush and I don't skim. More often, if I really like a book, I will repeatedly force myself to put it down often so I can savor it. For me, it is all about forcing myself to sit down, read, and just ignore everything going on around me.

    Oh, and I listen to music while I read (I actually listen to music all the time, no matter what I am doing). It really doesn't matter what kind of music it is, just as long as there is no talking (singing is fine) as that is the one thing that will distract me every time. Also, oddly enough, I absolutely cannot eat or drink while reading because it proves to be an overwhelming distraction.

  13. James: Thanks for stopping by. Would've included you in the round-up earlier on today if you hadn't been so fashionably delayed.

    I tend not to eat while I'm reading, although a good reading experience just wouldn't be complete for me without the accompaniment of some sort of beverage; tea or coffee usually, being the good Brit that I am, but I'm not above a nice dark ale or a glass of wine. Any excuse, really - here in Scotland we're a bunch of damn drunks, make no mistake.

  14. Man, I hadn't read this article yet. Playing a bit of catch up here, which speaks to the article itself. Time spent reading blogs eats into my time with the novels I so dearly treasure.

    But to your question: I am an extremely, painfully, excruciatingly slow reader. It's not that I want to be slow--take one look at my Shelfari "to read list" and you'll see what I perceive to be a nearly insurmountable list of books. I'd love to be faster. I'd love to even read one book per week. And I, like you, enjoy reading lots of things besides just SF&F. I enjoy non-fiction of all types in addition to fiction, so it's sometimes a precarious thing to balance the two, and still come out ahead.

    My sister is an editor and she reads at the speed of light, literally devouring 500+ page books in the time it takes to drive from Houston to Austin. I found out, though, that the difference between the two of us is that I sound out nearly every word in my head as I read it. She does not. One could argue that she skims to a certain degree. I also have an older friend who will skip whole passages (pages even!), and I've only been able to bring myself to do that a couple of times. But this is coming from a person that used to rewind movies as many times as it took to understand a bit of difficult dialogue (I watch most movies with subtitles now).

    In short order, I sympathize with your book reading plight. However, I have no simple solution. I used to read a non-fiction and fiction book at the same time, but I quickly grew weary of that as it eventually became to much like a task.

    And when reading becomes a task and not an enjoyable thing... I'm screwed. In the end, I guess I'm a hopeless romantic when it comes to words. If the author has done his job properly, I'll savor every word, mentally squeezing each one between my teeth, careful not to let any dribble onto my chin of course!

    Great article!

  15. I tend to lie on the couch in the lounge room with music on in the background and an ice-cold drink (not always alcoholic) and a snack to hand. I also read on the tram to and from work. Depending on how into a book I am it can take me anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks and I only ever read one book at a time. Length of the novel doesn't seem to matter either, it's always based on how much I am either enjoying the book or other external factors that drag me away from it.

    Either way I average between 40 and 30 novels a year.