Speed Reading Secrets of a Book Critic

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

How is it professional book critics can pump out scores of reviews a year when many of us struggle just to read one book a week? They are told what to say.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Edward Nawotka

Edward Nawotka

There was a time when I was writing twelve capsule book reviews per week for a major international news service. It was a grind: the books ranged from serious fiction to mass market bestsellers and major nonfiction releases. In between those capsule reviews, I was also responsible for writing between one and two book-related feature columns. This work went on for nearly four years.

Of course, this was when I had time, before I fathered a child.

The mandate at the time was to write in such a way that a smart business executive who read the columns could go to a cocktail party and sound smart about the latest books. The reviews were pithy, terse and to the point. And my editor(s) were among the very best that I’ve ever worked with.

How did I manage such bulk reading? A hell of a lot of dedication for starters. But to be completely and 100% honest, I can’t say that I read through every single book in its entirety. The fiction, yes, for the most part. I read through more Paulo Coelho novels that I might have wanted (perhaps I am more…enlightened…because of it). Ditto for mass market thrillers that featured heroic acts of American derring-do (I’m looking at you Brad Thor). The nonfiction, yes, I mostly plowed my way though that as well.

But the real secret to my “speed reading,” if you chose to call it that, is that by the time I had received the book, actually gotten it into my hands, I already had a pretty good idea of what the book was about. I’d likely heard about the book at some point when it was being pitched, when it was sold, and I’d read several of the best bits in magazines when they were first published.

The fact is: before I ever got a copy of the book as an ARC, I’d already started forming my opinion of the book. With the steady stream of information, it was inevitable.

Then add the additional publicity materials that came with the book: pre-pub Q&As with the author, blurbs from the author’s friends and/or authors on the publisher’s list, maybe I’d gotten a call from a publicist or received a personal note from the editor…

The fact is: if the publisher was doing their job, I was also being told what to think about the book before I’d ever read it.

The combination of these various factors meant that I was already well on my way to writing about the book, prescribed by both my own impressions and outside forces. It was inevitable. Then I had to consider the audience for these pieces: those guys and gals who needed to be able to sound smart about a book without having ever read it. (Full disclosure: booksellers who engage in “handselling” fall into this category, too. I worked in and managed several bookstores where the employees routinely opined profoundly about the merits of a book without having full Biblical knowledge of said text.)

I’d like to tell you that all these factors had no influence on what I ultimately wrote, but it all did. Does it mean that I didn’t read the books in their entirety? No, I did, for the most part. Does it mean that I ready them closely? No, not necessarily. Does it mean I feel that critics can’t be trusted? No, not at all. I think critics — good ones — are able to put things in context in a way that makes sense for their audience and that of their publication.

That is the job of a book critic.

The way you read — whether for entertainment of edification — is up to you.

Speed really has nothing to do with it.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.