Speed Reading Completely Misses the Point

In this day and age of constant busyness there is a temptation to speed things up. We feel like we don’t have time and so we compress activities, or we try to find ways to cut corners.

This seems to be especially true when it comes to speed reading. If you search for speed reading courses or tips you can find hundreds of techniques and websites dedicated to speeding up your reading.

But why? What’s the point?

Yes, we’re all busy, and yes, I’m sure we all have other things to attend to, but speed reading books seriously misses the point – and it might even be harmful to you.

I’ll admit from the start that there are certain cases were speed reading is useful. If you’re a professor, for example, and you have to read 50 undergrad papers, then yes – I can understand why you’re trying to speed up. However, if you are about to read a book for your personal growth, in order to understand a topic, then it’s a delusion to think that speed reading is going to help you.

The arguments against speed reading

On a very basic level you need to see reading as a sacred activity. You take the time in order to investigate something, in order to learn something, and you want to pay full attention whilst doing this. With speed reading you might retain some information, but you will not get the most out of the book – and that should be enough for you not to do it.

As Woody Allen said:

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

That’s the risk with speed reading.

Reading should be active

The point of reading is that it should be active, not passive. This means that you actively involve yourself with the material. If you read a sentence, or paragraph, you wonder: ‘Is this true?’, ‘Have I seen this in my own personal life?’, ‘How does this fit with other information I know or have?’, et cetera.

You reflect on what your reading, you ask questions, or you question the author and what he or she is saying. In short: you’re engaging with the material – not just passively absorbing it as you would when speed reading.

You take notes and marginalia because you understand that reading is just the first step. After that, you will need take away all of the things that were important to you and put them into practice, and integrate them into your life.

With speed reading you might get the main points of the book, but you’re not a sponge that consumes information, you’re a human being that needs to find its own path.

Speed reading might even harm you

In fact, speed reading is not just a pointless habit, it can also be a dangerous one. When you read actively, when you reflect, think and question what you’re reading you’re building your own (proper) understanding. But when speed reading you just touch the surface of the subject.

At best, you gain a shallow surface knowledge of the subject you read. And that can be dangerous because it gives you the impression of knowledge, skill, or expertise – all the while you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Try this instead: better and fewer books

There are probably two reasons why people use speed reading: 1) they lack the time they need to invest to read properly, and 2) the quality of the books they read might be low – hence, they want to speed up.

To counter the first point is simple: you need to see this as an investment you’re making. This means that you have to free up spare time and the read those books that will help you in your current situation, and set you up for growth. For example, try building a reading plan for yourself.

At the same time, investigate how you spend your time in general. In front of the television or some other screen? Following the latest updates on Twitter or Instagram? If so, ask yourself how you want to spend your time: actively or passively? That is, do you want to be a passive observer of the world, or do you want to engage and participate fully?

To counter the second point, start by figuring out what you need to read. What are you lacking? In what area do you want to become better? Try a predefined reading plan, or build you own. Follow book recommendations, or join a monthly book letters. If the quality of the books you read is high, you won’t be nearly as much tempted to speed read your way through it.

Want to read faster? Read more.

There is one surefire way to read faster, and that is to read more and to be a well-read person. Reading slowly but consistently helps to build your reading speed (in a good way!). The more you read, the more knowledge and background information you have. You’ve built a frame of reference. And after doing this, it becomes easier to absorb new knowledge and to fit it in with the things you already know. This means that you can go faster through new material than a complete newcomer could.

At the same time you also develop an innate ability to understand a book’s structure, plot, and analysis. You won’t have to flip back as often to understand the point an author is trying to make. You will have to look up fewer concepts, words, or references.

Especially when you’re reading multiple books in the same subject area (for example, an area that you want to master), then it becomes even easier. You already know the major points, the basic outline, and some of the lessons. Your level of comprehension is already high, which means it will be easier for you to understand the book – and hence you can go through it faster.

In short, reading more, but slowly, and being well-read is the only way to start to read faster.

Pick the right way

In the end people are attracting to speed reading because it seems to offer a lot of benefits to them. But as with most things that seem to be good to be true, speed reading is not a panacea. Even worse, speed reading can actually hold and your learning back.

Remember that cutting corners is not what we want. It’s way better to read one book slowly than it is to read ten really fast. You will get more out of this single book than any of the books you speed your way through. However much we would like it to be the case, there are not shortcuts when it comes to reading books.

Flipping as fast as you can through the pages defeats the purpose. So savor the material, read actively, wonder, ask questions, make notes, and think about how you can put the books lessons in to practice. That’s how you read effectively.

Photo credit: Christian EM (Unsplash)

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