Speed reading: story reading

kids-read-under-tree

Are people speeding dangerously fast through your street? Consider removing all traffic signs, so that drivers need to slow down and make eye contact before crossing a road. Or have dinner on the front lawn, so that drivers slow down to find out why. It's the human way to calm the traffic.

These counterintuitive findings are being used in Europe and Australia for speed control.

When David Engwicht spoke on Radio NZ about this, he said humans have two opposing urges that are both strong:

  • to go fast (to escape, travel, achieve?), and
  • to listen to a story.

The trick is to make the story stronger. A child playing on the street. Dinner in a front yard. A motorist hesitating at a crossroads. That'll slow us down, because a story is intriguing.

There's a parallel in reading. With web content and indeed and files sitting on a computer screen, the urge to go fast has become almost overwhelming. I've found my eyes popping all over a paper-newspaper, looking randomly for a punchline. I've read an article and forgotten it instantly.

At the same time, when I read an online *newspaper*, I skim the headlines and read a few articles from beginning to end. So I have hoped all is not lost. But I've been concerned about what this has been doing to my brain—and yours.

Maybe I've only got the guts write about this now because I think salvation is at hand, in the form of readable ebooks. OK, I've come clean.

Reading by iPhone or Kindle is best with straight narrative. No pretty pictures. No fancy fonts. Just text, pure and simple, that tells a story. And so I see one of my friends reading Jack London on her iPhone, and a couple of others working their way through Dickens. Jack London! Charles Dickens! And loving it.

These are the same friends who use computers or fix computer systems by day, their eyes darting rapidly from key point to key point, in a mad race to consume information.

We all need to do that kind of reading. It's not so much speed reading as kangaroo jumping over the words, squashing them wherever we land. Thump, gotcha! Thump, gotcha! It's not a sweet, subtle, satisfying kind of reading, this web reading. But we have to do it, and we have to carry on writing stuff for that type of reader. They haven't got a second to waste. They're in a hurry, dammit!

But now, in the dentist's rooms, at the bus stop, on the train, they're reading stories again. For no reason. Just for pleasure. Not in a rush, but loving it.

Maybe this development is simply the swing of the pendulum. But for me as a writer and a reader, the iPhone and ebook explosions came simultaneously and just in time. I don't mind being a gobbly reader if I can still enjoy books. And I am extremely happy to train people to write for gobbling readers, provided we all slip into a Superreader suit at private moments.


Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

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3 Comments

Tim k
Tim k

June 23, 2010

I used to skim tough text trying to get through it quickly but i was always having to go back over the material to get the facts. With real speed reading I’m not only a faster reader but I don’t have to go back again and again to remember the facts.

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