Reading Fast and Slow

Some books, I shoot through. Others seem to last ages. And it’s not simply because I’m not interested in reading them. It feels like the length of the book is not the only factor in how fast it takes me to read it.

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A couple of books highlighted this to me recently. I read Mark Dawson’s first Isabella Rose thriller, The Angel over a couple of days (which is about what time I’d expect to take for one of his books), but before that I read Stephen Baxter’s Time, and this took ten days.

Time clocks in at about 550 pages, and The Angel at 350, so I’d expect to read the latter quicker. But the maths doesn’t add up‌—‌350 pages in two days works out at 175 pages a day, so Time should have only taken about four days. Not over twice that time. And there was no difference in the amount of reading time I had available for each book, either.

But The Angel flew by, and Time took its time.

Why? Why do some books take ages while others feel like they’re over almost as soon as I’ve started?

Length of chapter/paragraph/sentence

It’s common writing advice that short, sharp sentences make for a fast pace. This works really well in thrillers. The ones with punchy sentences. A couple of words. It keeps the tension high. It keeps you reading.

Single-sentence paragraphs work well, too.

Then there’s the opposite‌—‌the languid, drawn out prose that linger on the scenery, like a slow-panning camera, allowing you to savour the setting. Then there are the sentences that dive deep into a character’s thoughts, often leaping about from idea to idea (because that is how thoughts work), so by the end of the sentence you can hardly recall the beginning, and you feel like you have been on a journey between those full stops, and you need a moment to recover before you drift into the next sentence. These sentences are written to draw the reader in, or to offer the reader the opportunity to dwell on the poetry of the language.

It doesn’t always work that way, but generally something written with a short, snappy style tends to flow faster.

It also results in more white space on the page, and this is another factor in reading speed, for a couple of reasons. First, a page of solid text can appear daunting, and we almost need to build up the will to start attacking it, whereas a page with lots of white space is more appealing and we dive straight in. And secondly, it is easier for readers to lose their place in dense passages, so they proceed with more care, taking more time to ensure they don’t miss out lines.

With the books I mentioned above, The Angel has lots of short sentences and paragraphs, with loads of white space on the page. Time has its short, sharp moments, but overall the sentences are longer, and there are long passages with a couple of paragraphs taking up single pages.

Information

Stories are there to provide entertainment, but in many stories there is a need to impart some information as well. Baxter’s Time has a strong hard sci-fi element, with lengthy scenes where the characters discuss in-depth science. At times it veers close to becoming a lecture, and it requires effort for someone unacquainted with that type of science (like myself) to follow the arguments. This concentration naturally slows down the reading speed. As much as I enjoyed these passages in Time, they took longer to get through than more action-based scenes.

Compare that to Dawson’s book. Yes, there is technical information in this book‌—‌such as details of weapons and other pieces of kit. It’s what you would expect in this type of well-researched thriller, and it makes the book more believable, more grounded in reality. But Dawson keeps these passages short, a paragraph or two at the most, often only a brief sentence. He doesn’t allow the information to detract from the story.

And this highlights a difference between the books. In Time, Baxter is exploring scientific possibilities, and so the information is an integral part of the story itself. Hi work is as much about the ideas as it is about the story. But in The Angel, the story is the most important aspect, and technical information is there as colour.

Description

This is similar to information, but is also connected with giving the reader different depths to each image. There are some wonderful passages in Time where the characters are watching space, and naturally Baxter uses many words to do this in order to give us the huge scope of what they are seeing (and feeling). He builds up a dense picture for us, taking his time (and many words) to get things just right.

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But this doesn’t work for a fast-paced action sequence (of which there are many in The Angel). Here, we want action, not description. A car might be red, or a particular make, but we don’t need to know about the rust on the wheel-arches, or the dent in the rear. Likewise, when a thug attacks the hero, we’re not interested in his shirt, or exactly how tall he is, or if he’s shaved that morning. We want to know what he’s going to do, and how the hero’s going to respond.

Obviously, some colour is good. A fight scene that is nothing more than a blow-by-blow account of the action gets boring. We need some emotion, and we need some details so that we can ground the fight in reality. But we don’t need too much that is overly descriptive. We don’t want to slow down for unnecessary detail.

So a terse style, more suited to thrillers like those written by Dawson, pulls us through the book, increasing the speed at which we read.

Language

Most people, even if they know a great many words, use a limited vocabulary in their day-to-day lives. Maybe this is down to the need (or desire) to be readily understood‌—‌using possibly obscure words will make others pause, and could lead to misunderstandings. And this is as true with text as it is with the spoken word.

Some books (or passages within books) benefit from using a wider vocabulary, but they are usually more literary works, where the particular choice and usage of words are a main part of the pleasure of the book. These are books that are designed to be savoured, designed to be devoured slowly. They are books where we are invited to acknowledge the poetic and aesthetic word-crafting of the author.

But stories are different. Stories need to be told using language that doesn’t get in the way. We want to know what happens next, and we don’t want to be distracted by flowery prose. Maybe a sharp one-liner or two in dialogue, and possibly the odd enriching description, but for the most part we are interested in the story. We want to know how the characters are going to get out of a particular situation.

Thinking of those two books I read, The Angel is definitely plot-driven. Although Dawson does use a wider vocabulary than other authors in his genre (and that is one of the things I like about his writing), he doesn’t let it get in the way of the story. Baxter is different‌—‌there are times when he wants us to take our time, to savour the images he is presenting, and so a more expansive vocabulary is required.

Story Time and Jump Cuts

The scope of Time is large. There are passages that describe short periods of time, but the story takes place over years. Months can pass in a couple of paragraphs. In contrast, the events in The Angel take place over very short time periods, and an action sequence of only a minute or so might take two or more pages to describe.

At first, it might appear that this would make Time read quicker than The Angel‌—‌slowing down to describe in detail what is happening, for instance, in a fight scene should make those intense few minutes last far longer, right? And maybe, sometimes, it does work this way. But I think the reverse can happen, too. If we know that things are moving fast in the story, we naturally read faster. Similarly, if events in the story are unfolding over many weeks or months, we feel that we can take our time.

It depends on how that passage of time is described.

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One technique Dawson uses to keep the tension high and to keep us reading is that of cutting between points of view. We might start off a sequence with one character, but then (usually at the moment when they are in greatest danger), we cut to another character, and learn what they have been doing. We chop and change quickly, which is like the fast cutting of a movie action sequence. It keeps us wanting to return to each character, eager to find out what happens to them.

In Time, although there are a number of point-of-view characters, we are generally with each one for more pages, and for more time. This is like the kind of movie shots that follow the character or action with one camera, giving us a long, unbroken sequence that allows us to dive deep into the scene. There is no urge to rush, so we read at a more leisurely pace.


Of course, there are many more things that can affect reading speed. There are all those external factors, like interruptions (a sudden storm hammering rain against the window, the kids playing, noises on the street outside) and our current state of mind (feeling tired, having other things on our minds). Sometimes we have our own time constraints (something else to do, a new book we want to read), and we naturally speed up, maybe skim-reading some passages. A thick book might feel daunting, so we start with more trepidation. Or maybe we don’t want a thin book to finish, and we actively slow down (which is something that happened to me when I first read Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy).

But that is one of the pleasures of books. Unlike films and TV programmes, or music, books are not constrained by time. We can fly through a hundred pages, or we can linger over a single sentence. We can enjoy a thrilling roller-coaster ride of a story, or we can savour the richness of the language. We can set aside an evening for the adrenaline rush of racing through a whole book, or we can read a little each night, drawing out the immersive pleasure of the book.

But however we do it, reading is always time well spent.

 

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