Slow Forever! Why Speed Reading Sucks
What Is Speed Reading?
I bet you love to read. And maybe, like me, you’re a productivity nerd who enjoys getting stuff done efficiently. I’m here to argue that one form of “productivity” to be avoided at all costs is speed reading.
Speed reading fits nicely into the life hacking ethos of doing more in less time. Are you a Grab-Life-By-The-Nuts™ go-getter who wants to extract maximum revenue and happiness from each second? Read faster! Internet self-help gurus who claim to read literally hundreds of books per year reinforce this idea.
But when you think about what reading is, and why it matters, speed reading makes as much sense as speed watching a great movie. Would you watch Christopher Nolan’s superhero masterpiece, Batman Begins, at 3x speed, just to watch three Batman movies in the time it takes most people to watch one? That sounds insane, right? So is doing it with a good book.
Before I explain my problem with speed reading, let’s ask: what is it? Most people read 200–300 words a minute. Speed readers triple or quintuple (3X or 5X) that weak sauce number, going to 1,000+ words per minute.
Technically, speed reading is a group of visual processing shortcuts centered around dropping “sub-vocalization.” In normal reading, you say the words to yourself, in your head, as you read. When you speed read, you drop subvocalization: you skip saying the words in your head, and you scan sentences and whole paragraphs. You extract “the essential information” quickly, without dwelling on each word.
It’s worth pointing out that scientific studies on speed reading haven’t been too kind to the possibility. Apparently, our brains can process words at a certain pace, and although we can maybe speed up by 20% or so, the idea of reading and fully absorbing The Complete Works of Shakespeare in a single afternoon is probably about as scientifically-warranted as belief in the Loch Ness Monster. Scientifically, speed reading is probably bullshit.
But here’s the thing: my objection to speed reading isn’t scientific, it’s philosophical. Let me explain.
I should say at the outset, I’m not claiming that there’s no scenario where speed reading would be helpful — if it were even possible! I’m just saying that for books that matter, speed reading isn’t worth it.
Why do you read? (Let’s assume we’re talking about books, mainly, or long-form articles, where you sit down and really dig in.)
Perhaps, like me, you read for a lot of reasons: to learn new ideas; to relax; to make connections between concepts; to understand the universe; to think about what’s possible; to feel something; to be inspired by art; for sheer pleasure. Speed reading a book makes all of these things either impossible or much harder. To see that, we should ask not just why you read but also what reading is, fundamentally.
Reading is Thinking, Not Mere Information Processing
What is reading? Is it just a surface-act of absorbing written scribbles with your eyeballs? Sure, but, more importantly, reading is a form of thinking.
Reading isn’t just something you do with your eyeballs, it’s something you do with your mind. Reading is mental engagement with sentences. By extension, reading is mental engagement with the parts of the world those sentences are about. We gobble up these sentences and consider their truth or falsity, their utility or uselessness, their sexiness or ugliness. To do this well takes time. That’s because thinking takes time.
Speed reading assumes that reading is just information processing — it’s all just “info,” so the faster we can uptake, the better.
My goal when I think is not to have as many thoughts as possible, passing through my mind as quickly as possible. My goal is to have the most interesting, useful thoughts, and to have them slowly enough to appreciate them, enjoy them, and do a little old-fashioned waltz with them.
Reading Great Books Slowly is Awesome
Think of your favorite novel, or your favorite non-fiction book, one that changed your life.
Was reading it just an act of information gathering? Would you have been better off reading it five times quicker, just to “get the gist”?
The books that moved me and changed me — the books that I’d like to spend more of my life with — are not just full of mere info I’d like to gobble up fast. I bet your favorite books are the same way.
One of my favorite short stories is “The Book of Sand” by J.L. Borges. Here’s a passage:
…he lowered his voice as though entrusting me with a secret.
I came across this book in a village on the plain, and I traded a few rupees and a Bible for it. The man who owned it didn’t know how to read. I suspect he saw the Book of Books as an amulet. He was of the lowest caste; people could not so much as step on his shadow without being defiled. He told me his book was called Book of Sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end.
He suggested I try to find the first page.
In a few pages, this story makes me grapple with infinity, mortality, and the limits of my imagination. Each line hits hard. I want to savor it, word-by-word. I want to take it in, and appreciate it. Slower is better.
True, Borges is a dense author. He writes heady fiction that you can’t read that quickly even if you tried. But regardless of how easy-breezy a book is, the point remains the same: Read it just slow enough to take it in and get the value from it.
I’ll happily make the same argument for non-fiction. In fact, I’ll grab a couple of non-fiction books from my shelf, and pull out an underlined passage at random.
Here’s a passage from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, a 500-page survey of all scientific knowledge:
Now the other thing you will notice as we speed past Pluto is that we are speeding past Pluto. If you check your itinerary, you will see that this is a trip to the edge of our solar system, and I’m afraid we’re not there yet. Pluto may be the last object on schoolroom charts, but the system doesn’t end there. In fact, it isn’t even close to ending there. We won’t get to the solar system’s edge until we have passed through the Oort Cloud, a vast celestial realm of drifting comets, and we won’t reach the Oort Cloud for another — I’m so sorry about this — ten thousand years. Far from marking the outer edge of the solar system, as the schoolroom maps so cavalierly imply, Pluto is barely on fifty-thousandth of the way. (p. 25)
This is the kind of nonfiction writing I live for. Interesting, vividly-described stuff that grabs you by the collar and says, “try this idea on for size!” It makes me stop and really imagine Pluto, sitting on (what I thought was) the icy, dead fringe of our solar system. Then Bryson tells us, “no, we’re not even close. Go another 50,000 times as far.” How can you blast through that prose and still appreciate the point?
Here’s another one, from a wonderful essay — Prisons We Choose to Live Inside — by Doris Lessing:
We are all of us, to some degree or another, brainwashed by the society we live in. We are able to see this when we travel to another country, and are able to catch a glimpse of our own country with foreign eyes. There is nothing much we can do about this except to remember that it is so. (p. 33)
It’s a profound point about human perspectives. But how can you appreciate it unless you stop to imagine being in a foreign country and seeing it through fresh eyes, then reverse your perspective and imagine someone in that country doing the same with your homeland? How can you speed read your way through the most profound parts — the parts you really learn from — and still get it? You can’t.
What About Boring Books? Should I Speed Read Those?
Are there any books that aren’t too profound or artistic or even enjoyable, where speed reading might apply? Sure, those are the books to skip and just not read at all.
If I have the misfortune of reading, say, a dry business tome on customer acquisition models, and this is information that matters to me and will make my life better (which it might), then I must decide: Will I read this for real, and truly process and understand it? Or will I find a place where someone summarized this idea briefly? Or will I just skip it? Because I’m not speed reading it at the expense of comprehension. That’s just wasted, boring reading time.
Personally, I want to spend the vast majority of my reading diet on books that are well-written, that teach me something cool, or make me feel something, or just knock me on my ass. The kind of books, in other words, where slow reading is the best. (If you want to be more strategic about your reading, check out my interview with author and writing coach Allison K Williams.)
Skim, Dabble, Be Eclectic
By the way, I’m not remotely against skimming and dabbling. You should not be a fascist with your own mind. And skimming and browsing and poking around and following flights of literary fancy are all great ways to find books or passages that deserves close reading. By all means, make up your own rules that work for you. Be eclectic and be free.
I don’t think anyone should feel obligated to spend time with books they don’t enjoy. If you have a crappy book, sell it. Or give it way. Don’t burn it though, that’s not cool.
Slow is Good
Why does anyone care about speed-reading? Probably because it feels like it could be a great life hack. In the abstract, more books sounds better.
Or maybe, in my personal case, it’s because I’ve lived with a background-level anxiety, ever since I was a graduate student in philosophy, that “I don’t read enough, and I don’t read fast enough.” Have you ever felt “book guilt”?
Or maybe speed reading sounds good to me because I was a kid with an overstimulated brain, and I had to spend time in a “special learning environment” where I wouldn’t get distracted. I think this made me a little afraid of seeming “slow,” and we all do things because we don’t want to be perceived in a certain way.
But I’d rather spend a year reading 25 great books slowly, compared to blazing through 100 books of mixed quality and not really engaging with them.
Thankfully, I’m over it. Slowly and carefully reading a killer book is one of life’s great pleasures, and also one of the highest-return activities there is.
Some things in life are good to do fast, like flying to Mars or running away from a deranged ax murderer. But some things — sex, art, cooking, defusing a bomb, strolling through a delightful alpine forest, reading great books — are just better when you slow the hell down.