I really enjoy knowing approximately how long it’s going to take me to read a book

self-measure-titleI only read one book at a time. But, since I’m in graduate school, I need to read a book a week as part of my readings’ course. Thus, I now need to time exactly when I’m going to finish my books. This has resulted in a huge leap forward in my ability to assess how long it’s going to take me to read any given book.

Basically, the lynchpin of this system is the Kindle. Anyone who has used one knows that the Kindle doesn’t use page numbers to mark your location in book: it uses location numbers. For instance, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (the [amazing] book I just completed) is around 7000 locations long. Now, there’s no hard and fast rule for what a location actually means. Really, it measures the length of the encoding that underlies your text. Thus, even if you have two texts that’re of the same length (in terms of a wordcount), the text with more encoding (italics, bolding, lists, tables, fonts, etc.) will have more locations than the one with less encoding. However, a general rule of thumb is that 1000 locations = about 22,000 words. For instance, Gone Girl has 7000ish locations and is about 150,000 words.

As I noted years ago, I used to read about 15,000 words an hour. Now, that was an actual reading speed: it included bathroom breaks, checking my email, fidgeting, making a snack, staring into space, etc. It also tended to include 10-15 minutes of going outside and smoking. Since quitting smoking, I’ve observed that I’m usually able to read 1000 or so locations (20k or so words) in an hour. If the novel is a very fast-paced thrillerish novel (i.e. one that has a lot of skimmable prose), that can sometimes be more like 1300-1400 locations in an hour (it’s possible that some of this is due to fast-paced books catching my interest and resulting in fewer distractions per hour)

Thus, I knew, even before I began it, that Gone Girl was going to take me at least 7 hours to read (it actually took more like 5.75 hours, since this was one of those books that you can read fast). Next, I’m going to read George Saunders’ Tenth Of December: Stories for a Monday book club discussion. Since it’s about 3000 kindle locations, I know I’m going to have to devote about three hours to it tomorrow. I don’t know what I’ll read after that, actually (although I am feeling an urge to return to either return to J.M. Coetzee or to read one of Gillian Flynn’s earlier novels), but I know that I need to finish it by Wednesday night (when I have to read the text for our Thursday class—it’s short, so this should take no more than an hour). Generally speaking, I can’t expect more than two hours of reading time on a weekday, so I need to make sure that I don’t select anything longer than 100,000 words. It’s all a very orderly system.

The result of this calculation is that I feel less afraid to take on long books. Even if book is about 300,000 words, I know that only represents 15 hours (or about a week and a half) of effort.

My Reading Speed

            Whilst reading Vanity Fair on my Kindle, I noticed that I was finishing about 5% of the book for every hour of reading. It’s a pretty long book, and I noticed that the rate at which I was going through it was fairly reliable. Eventually, I popped on over to Project Gutenberg (where I got my version) and pasted the entire book into Microsoft Word, where I saw that it contains (not including the legalese Gutenberg back-matter) almost exactly 300,000 words. A little division revealed my effective reading speed is about 15,000 words per hour, or 250 wpm.

            I’m not sure how this number relates to my actual reading speed, since those 5% hours also contained 5-10 minutes of smoking, as well as additional amounts of staring at the wall, drinking soda, going to the fridge and seeing what we had, returning disappointed from the fridge, shooing away the cat, etc. But I hardly see that it matters, since I am never likely to do an hour of reading that is free from 10-15 minutes of such distractions.

            In my reading since, I’ve observed that this rate seems to have held true, though, of course, it could just be a selectivity bias, in that I interpret what are, in reality, various speeds as conforming to the rate I’d already decided was the right one. Still, before I did these calculations, I literally had no idea what my reading speed could be (or even what is normal for educated readers of English). I suppose I would have assumed my reading speed was more in the range of 20-30,000 words per hour (which is a rate that is theoretically possible, since the fastest readers read at about 600 wpm, which would be [assuming they can keep it up], 36,000 words per hour)

            Although my heart revels in the ability to quantify the time I spend reading, I am not sure that it will prove healthy in the long run. At 15,000 wph, I must have spent 20 hours reading Vanity Fair. War and Peace clocks in at 600,000 words, that’s 40 hours: a full work week!

            George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books (which I’ve read who knows how many times) are circa 300-400,000 words each…reading through the series probably takes me around a hundred hours. There are only like 5,840 waking hours in a year! That’s a maximum of 876 normal-length (i.e. 100,000 word) books, assuming I read from when I wake up straight through until I go to sleep (more feasible than it sounds, given the 10-15 minutes of miscellaneous tasks throughout each hour). Probably this line of reasoning will eventually drive me insane. I hope insanity comes with mad speed-reading skills.