This year has been one for staying inside and reading. I live in Los Angeles, a city that encouraged some of the tightest lockdown restrictions in the nation. This was encouragement I readily took, even if I didn’t quite know what it meant. Practically locked inside, I spent the first few weeks of quarantine giving in to existential dread for the future. Once I got past all that (have I though?), I thought this newfound “indoors-iness” would be an excellent time to finally read all my books. Sometime around early May, I endeavored to read through my library beginning with Leo Tolstoy’s classic “War and Peace”. Six months later, I’m two-thirds of my way through the first book and loving every page of it.
However, this isn’t a post about “War and Peace”. This is a post about empirical science. While I do enjoy savoring every word on the page, I did have the thought earlier this week: "is taking six months for read 1000 pages in a book like, really slow?" Not that I base my value on it, but I am curious.
I suppose my curiosity on this subject comes from the implication in my own mind that a slow reader is a thinly veiled synonym for a dunce. I have seen a great amount of evidence in my own life that I may in fact be a dunce, though I often ignore these and other red flags. But six months into an incredible book, I can ignore my questions no longer. Once and for all, through the power of at home science and faulty experimentation, I will determine if I am a slow reader or not.
You see, I can read faster, but I don’t think I appreciate the art of literature as much as I do by reading slowly. Taking my time on “War and Peace” was a conscious choice that I made early into the novel. I wanted not to feel pressure to read more than two chapters a day for five days a week in the interest of stamina. I worried that if I did not pace myself with such a dense text that I would burn out on it and ultimately become disinterested. This method, so far, has proven effective.
Once again, I love this book. I love it like I loved “Crime and Punishment” and most Russian literature that I read. But that’s not what this post is about. I want to know if I’m a slow reader or not.
I will make this judgement by timing myself reading six different texts including two speed reading tests, one article, one book, and two online short stories of different length. I will find my average reading speed from that information and compare it to what is widely known as good and acceptable on the internet. I will not know what is considered a good reading speed until I have completed all my time trials, which gives this experiment the illusion of featuring a double-blind.
PRELIMINARY SPEED TEST: WHAT'S MY BASELINE?
What did people do before Google? I click on the first link that the search “reading speed” yields because I trust Google’s algorithms.
The text, as you can see, contains hints of information that I do not want to know, yet. However, it didn’t go so far as to fully reveal the answer I seek. Still, I read this text strangely. I comprehended every word but tried to forget it immediately just in case it contained some vital information. I read the passage quickly with a medium amount of understanding. I read at a pace of 317 words per minute.
The first official text will be leisure reading.
TEXT 1: LEISURE, PRINT
This part of the experiment will be the least scientific of them all. While all my other reading will be done with a definite word count on a computer, this one will just be my beloved “War and Peace”. I will read and time one chapter and use the known average words per page to estimate my words per minute. My goal here is not to speed read. It is, in fact, to read as I normally do.
The chapter is approximately 3.5 pages long. Now, this part is very rough, but the average word per page in print is 250-300 words, so I’ll judge this one at 275 words per page. Therefore, time is all I need to solve for to find out how many words per minutes I will leisurely read 963 words at, approximately. The answer:
Approximately 8.53 minutes. So, approximately 963 words divided by approximately 8.53 minutes equals approximately 113 words per minute, approximately. Significantly lower than my former score, yes, but I also think it more accurate. There is an argument to be made that reading on the page versus screen affects your speed, but we’ll get into that later. For now, we’ll just jump to the screen for text 2.
TEXT 2: LEISURE, SCREEN
The rest of the texts will be on computer for several reasons. One, I probably do most of my reading on a screen. Two, it’s easier to calculate words per minute. Three, I was planning on reading things on the internet today, anyway.
First up will be an article. When I’m looking for distraction, I typically go to Deadspin, The Ringer, The Takeout, or similar sites. Today, I have selected this article from Deadspin about the NBA, another one of my favorite subjects. This is a leisurely screen text.
These 601 words took me a hair under two minutes to read, resulting in a pace of approximately 300 words per minute. Could it be that reading on the screen is inherently easier than reading in print? Or is it that short, relatively shallow pieces are just easier to digest than Russian literature? I believe both factors to be in play, but I will explore that more later. For now, I will read something longer on the screen.
TEXT 3: LONG, SCREEN
I turn to Reddit and, more specifically, /r/shortstories for more text. Short fiction, for the purposes of this investigation, can mean anywhere from 500-6000 words, so I’ll read from both ends of the spectrum. While I do hope to enjoy these short stories, I am also looking at them with a critical eye, which could slow my reading. I start with a science-fiction story because it is a genre that I love, and I think that will increase my words per minute.
Special thanks to u/ToxyWoxy for that story, which served its purpose. You can read it here, although, and this is not throwing shade, I wouldn’t recommend it. At 5989 words, it was a difficult read for me to stay focused on. I clocked in at approximately 19.33 minutes, giving me a words per minute of approximately 309. This number is a surprise to me because I expected it to be much lower. Even though I trudged through this text, I did understand it, and I still maintained a high words per minute. Perhaps the screen reading is an important factor. Now, for an actually short story.
TEXT 4: SHORT, SCREEN
My next sample is a humorous short which can be found here.
These 534 words, genuinely humorous as they were, took me 1.75 minutes to read at approximately 305 words per minute. It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems like reading on a screen is faster than reading print. A different reading test for my final score will give me all the information I need.
In the interest of appearing unbiased, I did my second speed test with a different website, found here. It was the third option Google presented me with, and I could not tell you why I selected it over the second option.
Not bad, right? Right? Seriously, I still do not know because I have not looked into it yet. There is still one thing left to do.
Pictures are worth a thousand words. So, here’s a couple grand, for ya:
And another one:
And, in the interest of useless graphs, one more:
Boy, math is exhausting. But what does it all mean? How does this answer my question? I turn again to the internet to find out.
According to this article, the average adult reads at 200-250 wpm, which I am happy to report my overall average falls just slightly above. The author also makes mention of the difference that can be made between reading print, screen, cell phone, etc.…, but gave no definite insights on these differences. My own results seem to support the general idea that there is a difference in reading speed depending on the source.
The site that I used for my preliminary test has some useful information as well. According to their charts, my overall average reading speed is considered slightly above average, but not quite good. However, this average results from a text reading speed that is barely above “insufficient” and three screen reading speeds that are considered “good”. So, I take my own numbers with a grain of salt. According to this site, reading speed should slow down about 25% from paper to screen, meaning that I should read print faster. I doubt the validity of these results, however, because the source looks old. I, without looking any further into it, theorize that this study was done with participants who are more used to reading print than screen, whereas just the opposite may be true for someone my age.
When I compare my results to the known data, the answers I seek take shape.
My overall reading speed is either incredibly slow or incredibly slightly above average, depending on what I am reading. Some results also seem to suggest that I am putting too much importance on how print effects my speed. It may just be that I read “War and Peace” slower than anything else because it is the most difficult thing that I read. It does require a more concentrated effort from me, which may be the biggest factor in my low words per minute score for leisure reading.
When I am reading on a screen, I read faster. This was shown to be true with long and short fiction in addition to easy and difficult reading. On a screen, I read faster than the average sloth, but not by much. Overall, I would rate my reading prowess as average to slightly above average because my glass always appears to be half full.
So, am I a slow reader? When it comes to my leisure time, the answer is clear.
Yes, I am reading “War and Peace” at a woefully snailful pace; a pace that is, by one website’s estimate, nearly “insufficient”. However, and this is ignoring a lot of evidence to the contrary, this does not mean that I am a dunce. “War and Peace” is just hard to read, that’s all. Overall, I read at a slightly higher than average speed. Now that’s an achievement I can hang my mask on.