Why Oh Why Can Some Books Be Read So Much More Quickly Than Others?
Well obviously any post on this subject is bound to be nonsense, because different books may be easy to read quickly for different reasons. Plus, if it were possible to explain in like 1,000 words how to write in such a way that you know how fast it will be read, then it would be a lot easier for everyone to do that and this whole "writing" thing would be solved in an afternoon. I do not pretend to have such a grand solution. But.
Recently I read the novel Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile for a class. I procrastinated, of course, which meant I had to read it real fast. Luckily, I found that I was able to speed through page after page without feeling like I didn't understand what was happening. And I started to wonder why. I've always found that I can read some books very quickly, while I find myself reading the same sentences over and over in others. But I'd previously put this down to some unknowable quality of prose, some part of the "magic" of writing, possible to get the hang of with practice but never to logically understand. This time, I tried to logically understand it.
Baszile does not use short sentences in Queen Sugar, which might be one's first guess as to how to make prose easy to process. Indeed, she often favors long sentences with five or more clauses, separated by commas. Was there a difference in her sentences from those of other, slower-to-read novels? I think I found one. For evidence, I will use the contrasting example of a novel I found much more difficult to understand quickly, and describe what I think is the difference. The other novel I will use is Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, which has fewer pages but took me much longer to read. My basic theory of what makes Queen Sugar read quickly is this: Baszile's word choices are commonly used--one might say that they are the first word one thinks of when attempting to describe what Baszile describes--and each of her clauses tends to have one simple action or idea.
Here is part of a long sentence from the beginning of the character Ralph Angel's story: "And so, as he walked up the aisle toward the register, Ralph Angel plucked items off the shelf[…]and dropped them into his sweatpants, because he had to feed his boy[…]and he would do whatever it took" (Baszile, Ch. 2). As you can see, each clause in this sentence expresses one action or idea, such as the action of walking in an aisle, or the idea of Ralph Angel providing for his son.
Contrast this with a sentence from the beginning of Wolf in White Van: "It's a cluster memory now: it consists of every time it happened and is recalled in a continuous loop" (Darnielle, p. 3). I could have picked sentences I found more confusing than this, but I think this one does the job. Not only are the ideas in this sentence more complex, but the word choices are more eccentric and the second clause of the sentence contains two ideas. This is subjective, perhaps, but I think it is fair to say that less people are familiar with the concept of a "cluster memory" than the concept of providing for one's son. And that second clause, after the colon, uses the phrase "is recalled" instead of "I remember it," which is slightly stranger. Combined with the fact that the "is recalled" phrase introduces a second concept to that same clause--the first being that the memory is made up of every similar experience the narrator had, and the second being that the narrator finds the memory replaying itself in his head--the sentence becomes exponentially more difficult to parse.
I'll give you another comparison, and make this one a little harder on myself. Here's a sentence from Queen Sugar that contains multiple ideas per clause:
At the sound of Charley's car, two dogs lounging under the screened porch
dragged themselves into the sunlight, and the smaller dog, a scruffy terrier
mix with fur like pipe cleaner bristles, barked and ran toward her (Baszile,
And here's another bit of Wolf in White Van:
One way of coping, anyway, is to stare at the ceiling[…]You could picture
the paint beginning to crack and fragment, and see, either in your mind's
eye or out there on the actual field of play if your vision spreads that far,
the plaster underneath it learning to follow the cracks, the mildew forming
on residues left by cleaning solutions beginning to breed, and colonies
of microscopic life-forms, hostile to dull matter, developing their ruthless,
mindless strategy: consume, reproduce, survive (Darnielle, p. 18-19).
The second quote's a bit trickier, no? Here I would argue there are more differences than limiting the number of ideas per clause. One obvious new difference is how easy it is to picture the images described in each passage. Lounging under a porch and coming out from said porch into the sunlight is easy, and doesn't slow a reader down much despite these ideas not being separated by a comma. Plaster "learning" to follow cracks in ceiling paint, on the other hand…what does that mean, exactly? And that's to say nothing of the conflict between "mind's eye" and "the actual field of play," whatever the hell that is.
Overall, each passage seems to suggest the reader picture what is being described, but Queen Sugar makes that picturing a lot easier on the reader. "Fur like pipe cleaner bristles" is a simile that compares two well-known, easy-to-visualize things. Wolf in White Van's phrasings are not so generous. What does "dull matter" look like? How does one picture "microscopic life-forms" developing a strategy? And the clauses in this sentence still contain multiple ideas: the mildew forms on "residues left by cleaning solutions," we are told, and immediately afterwards that it is "beginning to breed."
Are sentences like these the only thing that separates all those "easy-to-read" novels from the "dense" ones? Of course not. A clear sentence that is easy to mentally process is a factor in making a novel easy to read, but this only works as a long-term strategy if the sentence tells the reader that something interesting happened. But there is a clear difference here, and I hope it will help you understand a little better what's going on when you find yourself re-reading that same paragraph for the fourth or fifth time, or breezing through 300 pages in a single night.
Frankly, I prefer to read books that are easy to understand upon first reading most of the time. But I recommend both of the novels I talked about here. A sentence that is difficult to understand may be poorly written, but it could also be making an intentional demand upon the attention of the reader. Sometimes, paying extra attention pays off--provided, of course, that that hard-to-understand sentence is telling you something at least as interesting as the easy-to-understand one. Sometimes part of what it's telling you is that some ideas (or people) take a little more time to understand.