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How to read 462 books in one year

January 9, 2009 |  7:31 am

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When Sarah Weinman, who writes our Dark Passages column, tweeted that she'd read 462 books in 2008, I thought it had to be a typo. Maybe she meant 46? 62? Either of those, about a book a week, would be respectable. But no, she really did read the impossible-sounding 462 books in 2008. Those 462 books marked a personal record -- she's been keeping a formal list since 2005. Below, she explains what it's like to be a super-speedy reader.

Jacket Copy: So how do you do it?

Sarah Weinman: I've been trying to analyze my reading method to see why I've almost always been able to do this (well, I started reading at the age of 2 1/2; I don't think I was speed-reading back then, but I became aware I could read fast when I burned through eight "Sweet Valley High" books in one evening when I was about 9.) A lot of it has to do with my music background. I studied voice and piano fairly seriously during my elementary and high school days, and as such, I became very attuned to rhythm and cadence and voice. So what happens when I read is that I can "hear" the narrative and dialogue in my head, but what's odd is that I'm both aware of the book at, say, an LP rate (33 1/3 revolutions per minute) but in my head it translates to roughly a 78. I've tried to slow this down, but realized that my natural reading rhythm is freakishly fast when an author friend asked me to go through the manuscript of her soon-to-be-published book for continuity errors. I sat in the La-Z-Boy at my parents' house with a pencil, went through page by page making notes but also enjoying the book, and had the whole task done in about 3-4 hours. This was a 350-page manuscript too, so roughly 80,000 words. Take away the pencil and the editor's hat and the reading speed would probably be close to 90 minutes. What also seems to happen is that I read a page not necessarily word by word, but by capturing pages in sequence in my head. The words and phrases appear diagonally, like I'm absorbing the text all in one gulp, and then I move on to the next sequence I can absorb by paragraph or page. It's like I'm reading from a whole-language standpoint instead of phonics -- that's the only way I can figure out how to explain it.

JC: Do you retain plot or characters best? Or something else?

SW: I retain characters more often than plot, but what seems to happen is that I latch on to specific moments, turns of phrase and dialogue as touchstones for me to recall what happened in the book. Kind of like freeze-frame. I've often wondered if the passage of time will make me forget what happened in a book, but more often than not, I'll pick up a book to reread and remember almost exactly what happened, the mood of the book, and how I felt at the time when I read it. If a book is great, there's an electric charge as I read the text and "hear" the voices in my head. But honestly, a lot of the books I read in 2008 were mediocre or forgettable, and if I hadn't been on a subway or captive on a plane or a train, I might not have finished them.

The difference in reading for work and fun - after the jump.

JC: As a critic, how do you make note of significant passages or things you plan to mention about a book?

SW: It depends on the venue. If I'm writing for the L.A. Times, for example, or especially for a venue I've never written before and thus want to make a very good impression upon the editor, I'm reading with an eye to review it critically, and as such, make note of quotes I want to use by turning down the top right hand corner of the page. And I try my best to "slow" myself down, but as I explained, once I get into a book's rhythm, my natural speed kicks in, more or less. If it's for the Baltimore Sun, with only 200 words per book, I almost never quote verbatim, so it's not as necessary to make note of specifics (unless there are those I want to make note of.) Otherwise, a whole lot of thinking and letting my head take over. I find there's a natural but frustrating gap between when I finish reading a book and when I start writing a review. I've tried to bridge it by starting right away, but I almost always have to throw out whatever I've written, whereas if I write the review during a dedicated time during the day (often after berating myself for undue procrastination ... so it goes) it ends up fairly clean.

JC: Do you also read for leisure? How is that different from reading for work?

SW: If I didn't read for leisure, I would go nuts. But it is different. When I read a classic crime novel by, say, Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo or an older book by Richard Powers, it's less about keeping up with contemporary publishing and making sure I'm staying abreast of what's going on in crime fiction (or the New York literary scene, though I still haven't read "Netherland," so clearly I'm not one of the cool kids) than filling in necessary gaps or appreciating why certain authors count among my favorites.

JC: What were the longest and shortest books you read in 2008, and how many pages were they?

SW: Longest book was "2666" by Roberto Bolaño, and it was an irregular reading experience. I read the first four parts during a cross-country plane trip, reading at slightly slower than usual speed but surprised at how accessible the book was compared with "The Savage Detectives." I then did not pick it up for a week while I was on vacation and finally read part five in bits and bites by the time I returned to New York. I think the passage of time helped me to figure out what was going on with parts I-IV (which I thought brilliant) so that by part V, I'd made all the larger connections and appreciated what Bolano was trying to do -- which was, to my mind, show that there is a place of hell so horrible and unimaginable that even 900 valiant pages is not enough to explain the cataclysm of human failure.  Shortest book? Maybe Carlo Lucarelli's "Via Delle Oche," which I think is barely 100 pages. But I'm not sure.

JC: And finally, how many books have you read so far -- by Jan. 9 -- in 2009?

SW: I've read 10 books and am about 50 pages through No. 11. So still roughly a book a day!

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Athena's Pix via Flickr

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