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Last Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Could you read 100 novels in 100 days?
Man and woman reading book

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The Man Booker prize judges' task of reading a hundred novels in a hundred days sounds an arduous one, but can we learn to do it with ease? And in this age of information overload do we all have to learn to read a little bit quicker?

So how long did it take you to get to the end of this sentence?

A second? Half a second? And if you'd known this was a test, would you have done anything differently? Might you have taken a deep breath beforehand, concentrated hard and fixed your gaze? Would you have read it aloud, or not? Would you have run a finger along the line?

And never mind one line, how long did it take to read the last novel you tackled? Many of us have read a novel in a day. Maybe a Marian Keyes or a Michael Crichton on a long journey. But it's hard for most people to wrap their heads around tackling one tome on a Tuesday and then wading through another whopper on a Wednesday.

Silently read the line
Follow the line with a finger
Don't 'backskip'
Understand peripheral vision
Don't try and focus eye on every word

But that's the task the Booker prize judges face. From a period beginning at about the end of March/beginning of April, the five judges have to batter their way through 110 books in not much more than four months. It works out as a little less than a book a day.

And it isn't just about finding whether it was the butler in the pantry with the candlestick. They must consider, analyse and ruminate on the entrants in order to find their way to the best non-American literature in the English language.

Crowding danger

Professor John Sutherland was head of the judges panel in 2005 and is heartily bored by the regularity with which he is asked whether he read all of the 120 entrants that were eventually whittled down to John Banville's The Sea.

Of course he did.

"I kept notes on every novel. The notes are deposited with the unofficial Booker historian.

This Life's Milly reading a book
Peripheral vision is good, but looking at the book probably helps

"It isn't just reading, but giving the novel space in your mind. If you watched five films in the same day, my thought is the fifth film wouldn't get the same treatment. If you read too many they crowd each other out."

But he understands those members of the reading public who are filled with baffled wonder when they think of the kind of busy high-powered career people who often fill the jury.

Those who feel swamped might sympathise with this year's chairman of the Booker judges, Sir Howard Davies. As well as being a long-standing reviewer of books, he's the former deputy governor at the Bank of England, the current director of the London Schools of Economics, a trustee of the Tate, and a member of the Royal Academy of Music's governing body. He also reads novels in French.

"Multiply 110 novels of 270 pages, two minutes a page and see how much time the director of the CBI or the director of the LSE has. If they put their hand up and say they have then you must believe them," Prof Sutherland says.

"[But] there's reading and there's reading. I read the newspaper today but I wouldn't want to be examined on it."

Seven stages

That figure of two minutes a page is the key. The memory and reading guru Tony Buzan, who wrote the Speed Reading Book for the BBC, believes people can do much better than that.

"Most people are not good readers at all. After university the average graduate reads one book a year. Even good readers are reading at half the speed they could be.

"A speed of a thousand words a minute is comfortably achievable on an appropriate text."

Read standing up in a bookshop, that way you will do it quickly and efficiently
Prof John Sutherland
Former Booker judge

Buzan breaks the art of speed reading into seven stages: recognition, assimilation, comprehension, understanding, retention, recall and use.

Deliberately reading slower than you normally would to increase comprehension is out, as it actually reduces comprehension, Buzan says.

But habits that most readers might regard as unnecessary can help you be quicker, Buzan says. These include subvocalising - or silently conjuring up the sounds of the words either with or without lip movements - and following the line with a ruler or finger.

Readers must learn how their eyes and brain work. They read not just the word being focused on, but also words either side. The page is not read in one continuous side-to-side motion. Instead the eyes skip about. Research suggests they even move at different speeds and cross over occasionally.

Information overload

Buzan is messianic about one particularly heinous vice. Backskipping, or rereading passages you think you haven't understood, is totally out for speed readers.

The concept of speed reading has its critics. Some say rates of comprehension are not as high as its champions suggest and that it's no better than the efforts the untrained might muster if instructed to "skim" a book.

Monk reads book
A peaceful setting may aid concentration

But the idea of reading faster has a certain resonance in today's era of information overload. The shelves of the bookshops groan with new fiction, and the internet offers a biblical inundation of text - blogs, essays, user-generated material of all kinds.

"We are living in a period where there is more stuff to read than ever. Most periods of cultural history have been marked by shortage rather than glut," Prof Sutherland says.

"People want a thinning out of the field. It is a dual responsibility to the reading public. Money used to be the restricting factor, now it's time."

This year there has been much discussion over the brevity of the shortlisted On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. But previous winners like Possession or The Blind Assassin have been the kind of hefty volumes you might reach for as a weapon if you heard a noise in the night.

Having passed the 100 books in a 100 days test, Prof Sutherland must have some advice for the would-be marathon reader.

"Read standing up in a bookshop, that way you will do it quickly and efficiently," he jokes.

Below is a selection of your comments.

A late friend once claimed to have read "war and Peace" in a little under seven hours. I had never read this book, so I asked him what it was about. He said "This guy, in Russia."
John Hardwick, Bedfont, Middlesex

Currently reading "War & Peace". Loving it, but the thought of a book a day under those parameters is risible! So far, I've been reading it for about 4 months, including a pause at p.500 or so (during which time I read the last Harry Potter book in about 3 days). Currently on p.916 of 1001, so we're nearly there. Forget the speed reading and enjoy an epic for its fine detail and storyline (a former teacher of mine claims she read it in 3 days though...). Thank God I'm not a judge!
Alex, Edinburgh, Scotland

To quote Tim Vine: "I've taken a speed reading course. I read "War and Peace" in three seconds. It's only three words but it's a start."
DS, Bromley

I am a young (16) speed reader, able to easily read 6 books in a day (as I did whilst at my old grammer school). I read the latest Harry Potter in just under an hour, and the one before in 1 hour 15 minutes. I also write book reviews (so have to take it all in). Therefore reading 100 books in 100 days would be a shortage for me.
Miranda, Surrey, United Kingdom

Try being a lawyer. You must read the equivalent of several complete and unabridged versions of Shakespeare a week, and the content is certainly less enticing than that which the Booker Prize judges get to look at! Its easy....
Jon, London

Different reading styles for different texts. I can speed read 800wpm general factual information, flit over a novel at 1,400wpm, but when it comes to academic texts, esp densely written such I can only manage about 300wpm with good comprehension (as far as anyone can understand Kant or Habermas). The trick is to know when to change gear - race through the pages until you see something that warrants the effort of being read, change into a low gear and read it thoroughly, then speed up again - to give the best balance of speed and comprehension.
Sam Martin, Preston, UK

I myself since a young age read a lot of books, this led me to be a marathon reader, as I'd read 2 to 3 books a day so I could return them to the library the following day! I'm sure my reading speed is well over a thousand words a minute, probably close to two thousand.
Ashvin Asani, Colindale, London

OK, probably quite easy. I have done Lord of the Rings, including Appendices, in 5 Days whilst on Holiday. The Last Harry Potter in 6 hours. The Da Vinci Code in one sitting over night!

It is easy to read a book like that, all you need is peace and quiet, and the book has to be good. A John Grisham can be knocked off in a few hours, but they aren't exactly taxing. Tom Clancy can take a little longer, but again they are great page turners. Shorter books can be done in an hour or two!
David Coulter, Luton UK

My partner, who is disabled, reads one and often two novels a day. This is impressive to me, as I am finding it increasingly difficult to read books through to the end, and read less and less. She tells she reads every word and doesn't skim. Yesterday, she knocked off a Caro Fraser novel (medium size) in about three hours.
John Gammon, Brighton, UK

I love reading, but it takes me a long time to finish a book because I 'backskip' all the time. When I finally finish reading a novel, I've in fact read it 2 or 3 times over in one go!
Greg James, London

Many years ago while I was at 6th form, we had the opportunity to attend a 2 day speed reading course. It was run by a company specialising in speed reading, mainly for business use. I more than doubled my speed and comprehension INCREASED. This was proved by speed and comprehension tests before and after the course. It focused on the above mentioned points almost entirely, along with loads of practical instruction on how to move the eye across the page. One of the school teachers sitting in, after 3 years of doing the course, had their speed up to 1200 wpm ... quite something... I say put it on the curriculum..
Don, Twickenham

I can't understand why anybdy would want to read a good novel more quickly. I can't be the only one who rereads sentences or paragraphs because I enjoyed them so much. Rather like good food, isn't the pleasure in the consuming, not in the getting to the the end?
Andrew Smith, Eastbourne UK

I would welcome the free books!! I read at a speed of 100 pages an hour dont know what that equates to in words/minute. But I do know that on average it takes me a day to read a book. I got the latest Harry Potter at 9am on the Saturday it came out and had finished it by 3pm. Perfectly possible if you follow Tony Buzans advice!!
Vanessa, Rugby

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