“I am a reader.” It’s such a weird statement to say, especially when you’re surrounded by literate people. Surely, everyone who’s learned English—or whatever your national language happens to be—knows how to read. But just like that not every person who’s taught to play the piano becomes an actual musician, or anyone who’s taken photography classes becomes a professional photographer, there’s a big difference between being able to read and actually becoming a reader. There will be people who’ve genuinely finished an entire novel but can’t genuinely be called a reader. They betray their ignorance with a simple and common question: how long does it take you to finish reading a book?
I’ve been asked this question a thousand times, usually when people spot me reading a paperback in public. In retrospect, it’s a question I dare not ask other readers, because it’s unfair. Books have no formula and come in all shapes, sizes, and content. Reading a novella is very different from reading The Bible. Or a collection of poems compared to a collection of short stories. Authors use various techniques and styles, some of which require meticulous reading, others so superficial than one can get by glossing entire paragraphs. Even the most formulaic of writers will make distinctions between their books so that it’s really difficult to say whether Book A will take as much time for me to read as Book B.
There is also the reader’s temperament to consider. A lot of factors will intrude into my life that affect how I read a book. There are days when I barely pick up a book and spend a minute or two reading a page. But there are also times when I am inspired and devour the most dense of texts in a matter of hours and eager to consume the next title I come across.
One might attempt to quantify the question by stating “the average.” While I might have an average temperament, there is truly no average book, a rule that dictates most books should be written in Style X and contains XX number of pages. If reading were a competition, I might compare my reading speed to someone reading the same book (i.e. how long did it take you to read Book A?). Or sometimes, we compare notes with fellow readers, asking them how long it took to finish reading that book. But that’s seldom the situation I find myself faced with. What’s more common is someone asking me how long it took me to finish the book I'm currently reading and there’s a part of me that wants to reply I'll be done with it when I’m done. Before then, I don’t know how long it’ll take me. To answer such a question requires me to know the actual contents of the item in question and if I knew that, why would I be reading it in the first place?