Previously, I wrote a post on ‘How to read between the lines’, which seemed to resonate with quite a few of you who read this humble blog. So in this post, I’d like to take on another one of the most common FAQs I get about reading:
How can I read faster?
In an era where virtually everyone’s attention is in a constant bidding war among different sources of distraction, this is a perfectly reasonable question, and one that I’ve personally thought long and hard about.
To start, I’m going to cut to the chase and offer my view in a paradoxical, if not somewhat contentious, statement:
In order to read faster,
you must slow down.
Let me be clear: I use the modal auxiliary ‘must’ not only for rhetorical emphasis; I deem it necessary – critical, in fact, to the success and attainment of speed reading (or ‘spreeding’, to use the sacrilegious portmanteau).
By ‘slowing down’, I mean reading consciously, which requires us to dedicate the maximum possible amount of time and attention to the act of reading itself.
To clarify, ‘maximum possible amount’ (MPA) is a relative concept. For someone who’s incredibly busy, their daily MPA for reading may only be twenty minutes. That’s okay though, because if, within those twenty minutes, they pay conscious attention to the words on the page and process whatever they’re reading in a critically engaged way, then it would have counted for meaningful reading, otherwise known as ‘close reading’.
Coupled with consistency, close reading is the prerequisite for meaningful speed reading.
This is because close reading enables one to develop an organic sensibility to the way sentences are formed and an acute sensitivity to the meaning that sentences convey.
Together, this breeds the necessary conditions for one’s familiarity and comfort with language patterns, which in turn cultivates a natural ability to speed read.
But I only have 5 minutes to read a 500-word passage with loads of technical terms, and I don’t have the time or luxury to slow down, you say.
To this, my response is that slowing down is part of the practice and preparation of speed reading, not necessarily the execution per se.
In other words, the process is organic: when the occasion arises for you to speed read through exam passages or work documents, you will have developed the ability to read quickly if you have carried out slow, conscious close reading over a sustained period of time.
To practical ‘spreeders’ – tips for meaningful speed reading
So say you’ve been reading consciously and consistently for some time now, and you’re about to take a test that requires you to apply speed reading skills.
Apart from ‘skimming and scanning’ and moving your eyes frantically across the page, how else can you speed read in a meaningful way?
Figure out the text’s key subject area
In general, people are better able to speed read when books or passages feature topics and study areas they are personally familiar with.
If you’re a science student or someone who’s interested in medicine, then perhaps you’ll find Gavin Francis and Atul Gawande’s writing easier to digest than a humanities student who’s not as well acquainted with medical concepts or jargon.
On the other hand, if you’re an avid reader who’s more at ease with compound clauses and metaphorical nuances, then maybe you’ll find Charles Dickens, Henry James and Virginia Woolf’s writing – which many would consider to be examples of ‘difficult’ prose – perfectly manageable.
This is why it’s generally worth reading beyond our natural scope of comfort, so when we encounter an essay with a title like ‘Myopic Loss Aversion and the Equity Premium Puzzle’, we can still rely on our basic understanding of economics and finance to grasp the main idea of the piece, despite our unfamiliarity with the technical specifics.
Newspaper op-eds, international journals and literary reviews are good places to start. Otherwise, just being aware of the subject area of a given passage should already sharpen the parameters of your focus.
Pay attention to context in the paratext
The best way to start reading a text is, somewhat ironically, by looking at its ‘paratext’, which refers to the published information that isn’t part of the text’s actual content.
This information typically includes the author’s background, the historical and cultural period in which the author was writing, and the text type (e.g. speech, letter, journal entry, short story etc.)
While such details may seem tangential, they can be surprisingly useful in giving the reader a framing awareness of what to expect in terms of content (a famous speech given in 1960s America could possibly be ‘counter-cultural’ in sentiment and preoccupation), style (a published letter written in the Victorian era is likely to be elegant in style and formal in tone), bias (a journal entry – of any period – is likely to be concerned with subjectivity, thoughts and emotions), narrative (a short story is likely to follow the narrative arc of exposition-climax-resolution – with the possibility of a ‘twist ending’) etc.
In most exam passages, you should be able to find contextual information provided before the passage begins, or in the source listed at the bottom of the text.
Don’t dwell on ‘difficult’ words, focus on the big picture instead
Almost every reader has struggled with this one at some point: what should you do when you come across a word you don’t know?
And if you’re a student about to take an exam sans dictionary, what should you do to overcome these semantic conundrums?
The key, in fact, is to not worry too much, especially when the words you don’t understand probably make up less than 5% of the entire passage.
Instead, skip through these words for the time being and focus on understanding the overall message of the passage. It’s the big picture that counts.
Once you’re done reading the passage for the first time, revisit what comes before and after the sentence in which the word appears, then try to figure out what’s going on in the narrative at this point.
When you gain a more solid idea of the paragraph or section’s general message or concern, it should be easier to infer what idea the word could be associated with (or perhaps it won’t even matter by then).
To hobbyist ‘spreeders’ – but… why?
If you read for leisure but also care about speed reading, then my biggest question is – ‘why?’
What’s the purpose of reading so quickly, when the very act of reading is one of intellectual meditation and sustained engagement, which necessitate the conscious slowing down of minds?
This is why I’m wary of articles like “Bill Gates read 50 books last year. Find out how he did it.” or “This is how you can read 200% faster in 20 minutes.” Honestly, Bill Gates didn’t read those 50 books by pulling off some high-tech legerdemain; he read them by, well, finding the time to just read them.
And sure, anyone can ‘read’ 200% faster in 20 minutes if they just flipped through a book from cover to cover, but is that really conscious, meaningful reading? If not, is this sort of ‘reading’ even worthwhile or beneficial?
Reading is not a numbers game, and ‘reading more’ should not be shorthand for intellectual superiority or cultural refinement. A book list is not a to-do list, so please let’s not see reading in the same light as we would checking off daily errands.
So here’s my plea: if you’re reading a book because you think it’s good for your mind, for your soul, for your heart, then savour it, appreciate it, analyse it, talk about it, think on it, sleep on it – but please, just please, don’t rush through it.
I don’t care what Tim Ferriss says, but let’s establish that there’s no such thing as a leisure ‘spreeder’.
A slightly feistier post than usual, for which I make no apologies. That said, I’d love to hear your views (similar or different alike!) on this topic.
What speed reading techniques have you used?
Do you think conscious, meaningful reading can ever come of speed reading?
Comment below with your thoughts!