Reading is good. So reading faster must be better right?
This is the well-meaning logic behind every person who googles “speed reading” and all the recent excitement about the Spritz speed reading app that makes it possible to read 1,000 words per minute. It’s one of the reasons people like ebooks so much too.
The problem is that it’s wrong. Not stupid wrong, it just misses the point.
I took a speed reading course and read “War and Peace” in twenty minutes. It involves Russia. —Woody Allen
Reading is the quiet time in which you reflect and learn, it is not a race. It is where you teach yourself that which you don’t know—it is your time with some of the smartest (or at least different) people who’ve ever lived. This is not something to be rushed through, but enjoyed, savored and done deliberately.
In fact, smart readers do more than just comprehend words. They ask questions, they take notes, they look things up, they make connections, they produce marginalia. People who read a lot of books spend a lot of time reading. There’s no way around this.
But still, everyone asks how to do it faster. Let me tell you why this is so short sighted:
-If you find yourself wanting to speed up the reading process on a particular book, you may want to ask yourself, “Is this book any good?” Life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy reading.
-Yes some people read faster than others, just like some people eat faster or walk faster. But when you ask, almost all of them don’t think or know that they read fast. In other words, it’s not conscious. We all have our own pace.
-The best way to read quickly is to be smart and, paradoxically, well-read. Like anything, you get faster at reading the more knowledge and experience you bring to the table. You can guess where things are going, you don’t need to double back to check things, and you won’t get caught by surprise. It’s how you build up cumulative advantage.
-Seriously, give me some examples from history of greats who were “speed readers.” I can name many who were dyslexic and struggled through books anyway like Alexander Graham Bell, Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg and Richard Branson, but I can’t think of a speed reader. I’ll say it again: People who read a lot do it because they love it and put time towards it.
-I like to remind myself that no matter how fast or how many books I’ll read in my life, I’ll never have or surpass a small branch public library. And this thought calms me. Who am I trying to beat? The only thing that matters is if you’re getting smarter and better.
-How many books do you really need or want to read in a week? The most I’ve ever done was 7 (some were short, reading was all I really did that week). I’ll be honest: I don’t remember ONE of those books.
-Let’s say it again once more: if a book is skimmable, skip it altogether. You don’t get a prize for completing it. And there are better ones out there.
-Tackle the big books that will take you a while. No one speed reads The Power Broker. But if you make a go at it, it may just change your life.
-On the other hand, if you find yourself hitting a wall with a book and start to feel the Resistance, don’t feel ashamed to jump to another book to keep the chain going. I also apply this to my work life so I’m never stuck and always have something productive to do.
-Also ask yourself, “Am I reading slowly on this book because it’s poorly written?” You have paid the author once for the book and again with your attention. If they haven’t delivered value back to you in the form of a clear, coherent and masterful book then put it down and find someone else who can. The author is also supposed to pull the reader from page to page.
-An important part about reading is taking notes, marking the passages and quotes that you find to be important. Tell me how you plan to do that with an app that turns your book into a series of flashcards.
-Reading, especially reading physical books, is about seeing a concept laid out in front of you. It’s seeing the paragraph, the sentence, the page. As the great literary critic Northrop Frye once said, “The most technologically efficient machine that man has ever invented is the book.” I’m with Northrup, I don’t anticipate any technology, especially Spritz, beating a book anytime soon.
-This is an issue I don’t think Spritz can solve. They know that sometimes books have charts right? And what about the translator’s introduction, footnotes, and editors notes? All of this is important and I never skip them because this information adds context and sets the stage for the text you’re reading.
-Doing this is akin to cutting out establishing shots in movies. What about all those downs in football where they aren’t throwing the ball? Or the set up and communication in baseball before a pitch? Don’t ever tell me why you came to think something, just tell me your final conclusion with no context. Life would be so much better without all that “waste” wouldn’t it?
-I like Richard Feynman’s line about how if you can’t explain something in a simple straightforward way then you probably don’t understand it yourself. This is unfortunately true for far too many books. If you’re reading a book where the writing is obtuse or the author can’t easily explain what they claim to be an expert about, they’re probably a charlatan. Put the book down—that will save you some valuable time.
-What are you going to do with this time you “save” speed reading? Work more? Watch more TV? Respond to email? Ugh. By doing this you miss out on all the ancillary benefits of reading: peace, quiet and concentration. Don’t toss that out.
-I’ll put it another way: Why is this the area in your life you’re trying to optimize? I’m laughing thinking of the time we waste in meetings, in traffic, in restaurants waiting for the check, on projects we’ll quit halfway through, on small talk and a million other ridiculous, preventable things. But reading books is the wasteful part we need to address. Be serious.
-I think I know why people focus on speed reading. They want the results without the work. There is and never will be a substitute. Put the time in, you’ll get the results.
I promised myself I wouldn’t end this with a cliche as simple was “quality over quantity” but I think you know that it’s true. The same applies for working out—there are tricks and strategies that could help you get most of the effects of a full workout in just 15 minutes. But I’ll tell you what: is that even worth putting your gym clothes on for? Are you actually decompressing and getting your mind off work in that short of time? Do you really want to be the person who crams a leisurely but important process down into mere minutes and loses the intangible benefits in the process?
Because that’s what speed reading does.
Reading is a ritual thousands of years old. One partaken in by some of the smartest, wisest and most accomplished people who ever lived. And you want to rush it so you can get back to TV or Twitter?
There’s a better way: Take it slow and do it a lot.
This column originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Comments can be seen there.
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