Our Reading Lives

I Have Terrible Reading Comprehension. I Still Love Reading.

I have a memory like a sieve. In fact, I’ve made it a point of pride to never rely on remembering anything. I have a series of alarms and email reminders (to be sent three days before, the day before, and then an hour before) for anything I need to do in the future. I once forgot my boss’s name (who I was working shoulder to shoulder with, as I had for years) for a solid five minutes. My ex once asked me if I was okay with them returning a season of a TV show we had borrowed, and I said, “No, I still want to watch that!” They had to gently explain we had already watched the whole season…we just finished the last episode the previous night.

When it comes to books, I have two settings: remembering every title and author, as a consequence of working daily with books for more than a decade, and forgetting every detail of the books I read. I don’t remember the main character’s name while I’m reading it, never mind after I close the covers. I couldn’t tell you the plot points of a book I finished days ago. I don’t read a lot of mysteries because I can’t keep track of the clues. One of the reasons I write reviews for most of the books I read is that I can at least remember the general impressions I had immediately after finishing it, and I can consult those for later use.

Recently, I was researching a post I plan to write about how to stop subvocalizing. (The short version: subvocalizing is when you hear each word in your head as you read, which means you can only read as fast as you can speak. Theoretically, if you can stop doing this, you can read a lot faster.) The study I looked at claimed that readers who don’t subvocalize have lower reading comprehension, and therefore people shouldn’t try to stop subvocalizing. I haven’t subvocalized since I was a kid. I was determined to break the habit so I could read faster, so I paced around my room reciting my own name while reading. (I don’t know where I got this method, but it seemed to work!) I froze after discovering this study. Was I damaging my own comprehension?

To be clear, in the technical sense of things, I have decent reading comprehension. I can decode words and understand the meaning. I’m not just glancing over words for hours on end mindlessly. I can pass a 7th grade reading comprehension test. (I just checked. I didn’t ace it, but I passed it!) I remember having to take reading tests in school and hating them, though, because the questions always seemed to focus on things I wasn’t paying attention to. I’m not keeping track of names or facts or dates. I’m just…vibing.

It’s hard to explain what happens when I read because I don’t “see” the story play out, and I don’t “hear” the words being read to me. I’m not a very visual person — I don’t have full aphantasia, but I can only picture fleeting, blurry images — so I also tend to skim over descriptions of visuals. As mentioned, I don’t subvocalize, so I’m also not “hearing” each word. Instead, I just feel immersed in the story. Not like I’m the main character, but as if I’ve been subsumed in the narrative itself. I remember ideas and impressions, emotions and connections.

I miss things reading this way. I miss a lot of things! I couldn’t tell you where a plot hole was because I either wouldn’t notice it or would assume I had missed some crucial information. Reading, to me, is like getting swept along by a river. It’s like falling. It’s like dreaming, when you can’t remember exactly what happened in your dream, but you’re left an indelible impression.

Visualizing is one of the most basic strategies of memorization, so yes, my comprehension probably suffers because I don’t visualize. And maybe if I subvocalized, I’d remember more and understand the finer details better. Definitely, annotating helps comprehension — but does that mean it’s not worth reading unless you annotate while you read? I doubt most book lovers would agree with that. Reading doesn’t have to be studying. In fact, I find reading that way — for me personally — to be stifling. I can’t get lost in the story the same way. I’m looking at from a distance, a critical observer, instead of getting pulled along in its tide.

When I explain how I read to other people, they are usually puzzled — and even pitying. What’s the point of reading without visualizing it? I’ve had people to ask. I reply to them honestly: What’s the point of reading if you’re just visualizing? You might as well watch a movie. To me, reading is a completely different medium. It’s an experience unlike any other form of entertainment, because it is entirely internal. I don’t see things or hear things. I’m just…one with the text. I get to transcend physicality for a moment. And if that means not remembering the details or comprehending every nuance? I’m okay with that.