Forget Speed Reading. Try Slow Reading.

Slow Reading = Win

When I was reading online all day, and not reading any books, I would get to the “end” of my RSS feed and feel spent.

What had I just read? What did I learn? How will this help me?

Dunno. But I finished it!

I admit, this still happens to me. It happened today.

Moving on to the next article, and the next one, and the next one, with no pause for reflection. I could feel myself speeding up, reading faster, my brain feeling heavy, pulsating, about to burst out of my skull.

You can learn to notice this feeling, though it can take years of practice. Only when you notice it can you stop yourself, and realize that you are wasting time and stressing out, trying to “complete” what’s in front of you.

But at least when bouncing around the web, we’re just doing what it’s designed to make us do. Links and tweets and feeds all encourage fast reading. It was a lot easier for people in the 18th century to pace themselves; they didn’t face the attentional challenges in a month that we do every hour.

It makes no sense to me to want to replicate this experience for books, too.

Yet speed reading is popular again, borne aloft by life hackers like Tim Ferriss and Scott Young, and a suite of new apps. (There’s Fastr, Spreed, Outread, Velocity, Syllable, and of course, Spritz.)

Speed Reading Hurts You

To what end, I ask?

Reading too fast defeats the whole purpose. It is beyond impractical: it’s damaging.

You are reading to learn. More than learn: you are reading to apply knowledge to your life, to contextualize your experiences, and to grow yourself, your career, your business. These things require comprehension, and reflection. [1]

Is speed reading even effective? Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe for some people it is (although below I’ll cite some evidence to the contrary). But I have two simple and solid arguments against it, and they both come from this graph:

Image of Google Ngram Viewer showing that speed reading wasn't a thing before 1900.

  1. Speed reading was not a thing a century ago. There were lots of smart people who read and did a lot before 1900: none of them were speed readers. And as Nassim Nicholas Taleb has shown, technologies and ideas age in reverse. Which leads to…
  2. Speed reading had its day. Like many so-called “revolutionary” technologies, it never delivered on its promises, and its bombastic claims were soon proven false.

Slow Reading Is Hard

So why is speed reading back? My theory: information overload.

I understand the stress of information overload. There’s lots of great content out there, more than we could get to in a lifetime. And we’re producing exponentially more of it. We feel like we’re falling behind.

But the answer isn’t to cram as much of it into our craniums as we can, as fast as we can.

When has consuming more ever solved anything?

It’s not a consumption problem. It’s a selection problem. And that’s a very hard problem.

Selecting the right information is hard. It requires you to be perceptive and diligent. Of course, understanding information and forming knowledge is hard, too. And acting on that knowledge is the hardest thing of all.

Speed reading seduces you by promising you an easy way out. “If I can just read faster, I can read more—maybe even everything! Then I’ll…”

What? Get a better job? Create a successful business? Become wise?

No. Those things happen by thinking more about what you read.

And that means going back to read a passage over, because you didn’t totally grasp it the first time, or because your mind wandered (this one gets me every time).

It means looking up words and concepts with which you’re unfamiliar.

It means pausing to consider connections to other things you’ve read.

It means summarizing a chapter in your own words, and formulating take-home messages.

It means applying those lessons to your own situation and incorporating them into your plan of action.

It means taking the pressure off of yourself!

It’s Not What You Read, It’s What You Learn

Speed reading relies on the assumption that how much you read is what matters. More is always better.

But that tension will never be released, because you will never be able to read everything. That’s why the only solution is to take the time to read, and understand, the right things.

Far better to focus on reading actively than reading fast.

In fact, not only is your reading speed not important, reading as quickly as you can actually damages your comprehension.

How do you feel after you’ve read a few pages of a textbook really fast? Do you feel confident about the material? Or do you feel like you’ve just tried to jam a book into a full bookshelf?

Because that’s what trying to randomly cram new information into your brain is like.

The only way to do this effectively is to take a moment to consider how the information relates to what’s already in there. You need to make a space for it. The more effort you spend on comprehension, the easier it will be to embed the knowledge, which in turn makes it easier to recall and use later. [2]

And that’s all that really matters.

Slowly Read These Other Things

There is plenty of material on this as the debate drones on. Here are some of the more informative and insightful pieces I’ve found.

Lifehacker The Truth About Speed Reading

A nice summary of what the new apps are trying to do, the different types of speed reading, and what the research actually says about it. Key point: there’s a difference between the hucksters who claim you can read 1000+ words per minute and simpler ideas like not subvocalizing and using a pointer. But the take-home lesson is that even using the latter tools to read faster comes at a cost to comprehension.

You can practice going faster and you probably will, but when you start going too fast you’ll start losing comprehension. Most speed reading methods involve getting rid of subvocalization. Research shows that when you do that and the text is difficult, comprehension goes to pieces. (quoted from Keith Rayner, reading researcher)

Personally, I’ve tried all the above methods, and they’re too exhausting for me. It takes a lot of focus and mental effort to speed read, and when you do it you’re missing out on information. I like the fact that when I’m reading a book or article I can take a few moments to pause and think about an idea. With speed reading, these moments are gone. I might consume a ton of information, but I don’t feel like I actually process it. That defeats the purpose of reading for me.

So, in short: Speed reading anything you need to truly comprehend is probably a bad idea. However, if you have a few documents you need to get through or you’re reading something that isn’t that important, these methods can still be worthwhile. Just know that you won’t become a super-fast reading comprehension machine.

Ryan Holiday Reading Isn’t a Race: How Speed Reading and Spritz Completely Miss the Point

Ryan hits on the more-is-always-better fallacy that underlies speed reading and similar “productivity hacks.” The point isn’t to get more done; the point is to learn. He also raises a slew of excellent counterpoints to the speed reading proponents (emphasis mine):

-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…

-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…

-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…

-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 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…

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.

Business Insider – The Problem With Speed Reading and The Big Problem With Speed Reading

This first article highlights ideas from Steve Leveen, a sociology Ph.D. who wrote a book on becoming well-read. He says pretty much what I said, which makes me feel smart.

“What’s important is what you think about after you read, what you conclude, what you do with what you read,” he told Business Insider…

“Step back for a second and say, ‘Well, what’s the purpose of reading in the first place?’ The purpose is to learn more about the world, learn about subjects you’re interested in, and then act upon what you learn, right? Live your life in a virtuous circle of reading and doing,” Leveen said.

So while speed reading can help you understand what a book says, only you can take the time to determine what a book means.

The most valuable part of reading may be those a-ha moments, where readers stare into space and process new information. “At these moments, your reading speed slows to zero, but your understanding soars,” Leveen wrote in his book.

The second one details an experiment I referenced earlier, which shows that being unable to go back and read things again has serious consequences for your comprehension.

If you need to quickly get through a long text, speed-reading is a tempting solution. But if you want to be sure you actually understand everything you’re reading, seeing each word one at a time won’t be much help, especially if there is any ambiguity involved.

io9 – Does Anybody Read Books the Right Way Any More?

This is an excellent, comprehensive piece on the state of reading. And it includes a gem near the end, quoted from an essay in Time Magazine:

The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love.

So there you have it. Slow Reading = falling in love. Why not do it?


[1] Bassam points out that you can also use reading to get away from the world of constant stimuli, especially by reading fiction. Plus, some big ideas simply require “marination” in your mind, for you to truly grasp them.  ^

[2] Another metaphor: it’s like putting together the puzzle of your wisdom. You don’t do a puzzle by taking out random pieces and trying to fit them into random places, as fast as you can; you may go a lot faster that way, but nothing you’re doing makes any sense. The proper strategy is to consider each new piece one at a time, find the area it’s most likely to fit, and try it a few different ways, until you can give it the right home. Remember what John Wooden said: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” ^

Thanks to Michael Borosh, Eric Jorgenson, and Bassam Tarazi for reading drafts of this.