How To Read More When You Read Slowly

Stephanie Murray
Jul 17, 2019 · 6 min read
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Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash

I am a slow reader — annoyingly slow. Sure, according to this test, I can read about 294 words per minute, which is only slightly slower than the average adult (300 wpm). But I’ve found that this estimate — based on the time it took me to read and comprehend a 300-word passage — poorly reflects how long it takes me to read a full book. For example, I recently (finally) read Great Expectations, a book that contains an estimated 173,130 words, or 544 318-word pages. According to the above estimate, I should have been able to finish 55 pages in a single hour and the whole thing in under ten hours. In reality, I usually covered 20 to 25 pages in a given hour of uninterrupted reading. In other words, at most I read about 133 words per minute, which is well below average.

That said, I suspect that there are many others like me — people who are easily distracted, prone to split hairs, or simply view a good book as more of a leisurely stroll than a 100-meter dash.

“Keeping up” in the literary world is always difficult, but being a slow reader presents a unique set of challenges. A typical book requires more time, more effort and more discipline for the slow reader than the average one. Plus, reading slowly can be demotivating. As an English major desperately trying to keep up with the curriculum, I often felt like I was walking a marathon that everyone else was running. It drained me and made me feel stupid, leaving little energy or desire to read for fun. Even after I graduated, I read sporadically, slowly making my way through five or six books a year.

Today, six years out of college, I read almost every day and finish anywhere between twenty and thirty books a year. I do it by following a lot of the advice that’s already out there (keeping a book on me at all times, reading multiple books at the same time, etc.), but if you are a slow reader looking to cover more literary ground, I’d add the following advice:

Don’t try to read faster.

The first year that I committed to “reading more,” I made the mistake of forcing myself to read more quickly. If I could read more efficiently, I reasoned, maybe I’d be more motivated to do it. Although I can’t say I succeeded in reading quickly, I read hastily, rushing from one sentence to the next. The result was precisely the opposite of what I’d intended: I found myself less motivated to read simply because I enjoyed it less. It became exhausting and chore-like, rather than enriching or relaxing. And by denying myself the time to pause and mull over particularly interesting passages, or reread ones I didn’t fully understand, I engaged less in each book and remembered less of them afterward.

Instead, read more often.

A good friend of mine once informed me that she doesn’t read daily, or even weekly, but manages to finish twenty-five or thirty books a year by sporadically binge-reading three or four in a single week when her schedule allows it. I have never read three books in a single week and never will. Thus, getting through a good amount of literature each year requires reading on a daily basis. (More about this below.)

Avoid outcome-based goals.

It’s common for “how to read more” articles to suggest setting a daily goal for reading: twenty pages or 30 minutes. But for slow readers, these kinds of outcome-based goals can be counterproductive. When it takes you an hour to read twenty pages, trying to do so every day can be overwhelming and unsustainable. Time-based goals are better, but even those can become obstacles to cultivating a habit of reading when reading is a slow and arduous process.

I’ve made this mistake many times before. Often, if I didn’t manage to reach my goal before heading to bed, it often sounded exhausting and impossible. In which case, I’d simply skip reading altogether. “What’s the point?” I’d think, “I’m not going to hit my goal.”

Wouldn’t it be better to read for even a few minutes than not at all?

Like I said, for the slow reader, consistency is key. And in my experience, the key to reading consistently is getting really good at opening a book. Focusing on outcomes can make picking up a book more intimidating, making you less likely to read as a result. By contrast, avoiding outcome-based goals (or keeping them very, very low) can help to take the pressure off. Make reading — for however long — the last thing you do at night. Or commit to reading just one page or one minute a day. Sometimes that one page or one minute will turn into ten, twenty, thirty pages or minutes. Sometimes it will be just that — one page or one minute — and that’s okay. Because when it becomes as natural for you to pick up a book as it is to turn on Netflix or open your refrigerator, you will invariably read more than you do now.

Be selective.

I’ve always envied people who don’t have to think much about what they read because, even if the book they’ve chosen turns out to be terrible, they are only losing a few hours for it. Unfortunately, I read too slowly to read indiscriminately. Being thoughtful about the books I read helps bolster my motivation to pick them up every day.

For me, this means that I don’t often read new releases. If it’s a contemporary book, I usually wait for several reviews to come in, so I can determine whether or not it’s worth picking up. I also read a lot of the classics — books that have withstood the test of time — because reading the best of the best is important to me.

That said, being selective isn’t necessarily about reading the best books; there are good reasons to read bad books. The goal of thoughtful reading is to narrow your book selections to those that you will likely be glad to have read afterward. Whether you’ve picked it up because you suspect you will enjoy it, or it covers a topic that interests you, or it’s controversial and you want to form your own opinion about it, your reason for picking up a book is not what’s important — only that you do in fact have a reason.

Stop comparing yourself to other bookworms.

I run in a pretty literary circle. Many of my friends, like me, participate in the annual Goodreads reading challenge (in which you set a goal for the number of book you’d like to read that year and track your progress as you make it). Every year, I find myself chuckling at the disparity between my goal and theirs. Some shoot for fifty or even one hundred books a year! I can tell you that the only way that I will ever read fifty books in a year is if I’m in prison or stranded on a remote island with nothing but my glasses and a Kindle. And probably not even then. Accepting this is important, because feeling ashamed that my goal is much lower than everyone else’s only makes it harder for me to achieve it. The truth is that I am and ought to be very proud of the twenty or so books that I read every year. It’s a lot more than I used to read, and certainly a lot better than nothing.

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