Speed Reading is Bullshit

Reading is important. That goes without saying. However, we’re also busy. And when we’re busy we take short cuts.

While we want to read better — that is to read for deep understanding, we settle on reading ‘quicker’ and confuse the two.

This entirely misses the point of reading.

I regularly read over 100 books a year and talk about what I’m learning on my blog. One of the most frequent questions I get is on how to read faster. This request almost always includes a link to a book, “scientific article,” or random blog post telling you how to read 10x faster while having a photographic memory.

It’s all bullshit. There is a way to read faster. But it’s not what you think.

The best way to read faster is to read more.

Better and quicker are not the same. A good book, like good sex or a date, is something you don’t want to end. You’re not rushing to the finish (ok, maybe sometimes you are but let’s skip the quickies, shall we). Instead you’re totally immersed in the activity — you want it to last forever. It’s supposed to take some time.

Don’t fool yourself. While reading is the key to getting smarter, speed reading is just a fancy way of fooling yourself into thinking you’re learning something. And as the famous physicist Richard Feynman said, “you are the easiest person to fool”. In reality Speed reading is just turning pages quickly.

Reading fast is not thinking. If you’re reading fast you’re not thinking and challenging what you’re reading. You’re not being critical. You’re not making connections with existing knowledge. You’re not arguing with the author. You’re not reading something at the edge of your cognitive ability. All of that is work. And if you’re not doing the work, you’re only walking away with surface knowledge. Reading is mentally demanding.

Reading fast is worse than not reading. Reading fast gives you two things that should never mix: surface knowledge and overconfidence. And that’s a recipe for really bad decisions. Bad decisions reduce the free time we have. After all, we have to run around fixing all of these mistakes. (When you think about it, a lot of people spend their days correcting poor initial decisions. This gives you even less time to read. Whoops.)

You can find time to read. John Wooden, the Hall of Fame basketball coach has a saying I love “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over.” Finding time to read is simple, but not easy.

Focus on a method of reading that enables you to not only read for understanding and knowledge but one that allows large blocks of uninterrupted time. When it comes to reading there is an optimal way to read and it’s not faster. Again, faster is just faster, not better.

Visible costs get attention, invisible ones don’t. Most people choose the path of low upfront visible costs and high visible costs later. If you’re willing to incur the cost of reading correctly and appropriately (it takes more time than speed reading), you get a massive benefit later. If you speed-read, you’re incurring invisible costs that show up later in your lack of real understanding. Ignorance is more expensive than investing the time necessary to get smarter.

The secret to reading better is reading lots of good books slowly. This enables you to build knowledge. Knowledge, in turn, allows you to read faster with true comprehension and retention. It’s how you can dispose of most ‘new’ books as re-hashed old ideas that offer little value. It’s how you make decisions that free up your time. It’s how you know which books are good and which books are bad. Charles Darwin was not a quick study, and yet he mentally kicked butt because he was slow and thought deeply.

There’s a better solution, anyways. Learning what a good book really looks like, and learning how to skip the bad ones, is a far more robust time saver than speed-reading. Hone your radar for a great book, be a little ruthless about culling and quitting the weak. Don’t waste time reading.

If you want to be different, invest the time you have in reading good books correctly. It might seem like your friends are reading “more”, but that’s ok. They’re on the wrong treadmill. When you pass them on the knowledge curve, you can thank me. And don’t read what everyone else is reading.

Most people want to create the impression they read. That they have unique insights. That they know what they’re talking about. In the end however, when it comes to doing the work, they walk away. That’s why there is so much value in reading. Do the work.


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You can follow Shane on Twitter and Facebook, and read more of his work at Farnam Street.