Reading fast is certainly an amazing skill. And the very tempting one.
Can you feel the thrill of endless possibilities? If you just knew how to do it, you could read, like, 10 books per week!
No wonder speed reading is a huge business.
There are probably thousands of books written on the subject.
And 99% percent are crap. Promises-flavored crap.
Sure, everyone would like to be the guy who picks up a thick book, thumbs it through in two minutes just to say, “Do they have to dumb down everything these days?”.
Can you become such a person? Definitely no.
Can you become a person who reads very fast? Yes.
However, if you are looking for a quick and easy solution, you will get severely disappointed.
Let’s start with some basic fact to help you read books fast without speed-reading.
0) Speed Reading Is Bullshit
I know that some might take this statements very personally, or even be offended.
“How dare you smear the good name of the speed-reading community?!”
However, it has to be said as it frustrates me endlessly.
Almost anywhere I go, I encounter opinions that it is perfectly possible.
From Tony Buzan’s classic to Tim Ferris’ article, everyone claims that reading with a speed of 1000 words/min is perfectly achievable.
Some even go a step further. Comments under any article on speed-reading usually spiral into some bizarre contest.
“800 wpm (words per minute)? That’s laughable, man.
Try getting to 2000 wpm, like me, to see what REAL speed reading is!”
Sounds great, right? Doesn’t work.
Before we get to the specific methods, I think you should know a thing or two about …
MY EXPERIENCE WITH SPEED-READING
I started my speed reading journey about 12 years ago.
I have always been a great believer in capabilities of a human mind.
No wonder, I quickly got sucked into the speed-reading world.
Initially, I thought that I was a very fast reader
It quickly turned out that my typical reading speed of >300 wpm was pitiful.
Wouldn’t you feel that way?
You start reading about people who underwent a special kind of speed-reading training.
About some sort of super-geniuses, or so I thought, who can read with 3000 wpm or even 8000 wpm?
I felt inadequate.
I started reading every speed reading book I could ferret out.
There were good books and there were terrible books.
Ok, mostly they were terrible.
Some titles sound as if they were concocted by a shitfaced magician.
Here are some of them. But just a word of warning. Don’t buy them.
They are crap. Go get yourself drunk instead. Or buy your horse a three-piece suit, It will be better use of your money
- A Course in Light Speed Reading A Return to Natural Intuitive Reading
- The Alpha-Netics Rapid Reading Program
- The PhotoReading Whole Mind System
Did I get better?
Yep. At least in some way.
After a couple of weeks of training, I could read with a speed of 1000 words per minute.
Then I pushed myself even more and I got to 1400 wpm.
There was just one problem, I couldn’t spot back then. The speed was there but I understood almost nothing
I guess Woody Allen summarized it quite brilliantly when he said, ” I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”
It was a very disappointing experience, I needed some time to digest the burden of this conclusion.
When I did, it became clear that
1) Nothing worth reading can/should be read fast.
2) You can read fast but you can’t understand and analyze information fast.
That’s why, as far as I am concerned, anyone who is selling “photographic reading courses” should be pilloried while a fat dude named Stanley sticks a tongue in his ear (so-called seashell).
Ok, we got this covered.
Let’s move on to the things which can actually help you read faster.
1) Know Thy Goal
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed,
and some few to be chewed and digested. –
FRANCIS BACON (1561–1626)
When in doubt, trust in Bacon.
He was definitely onto something.
The very first thing you should do before you open a book, and a waft of paper hits your nostrils, is to decide why you want to read it.
It doesn’t sound sexy. I know. You are a bad boy and you’d rather slap that book open right away. However, you need to restrain yourself as it is an extremely important step.
You might not feel it, but your decision, subconscious or not, will weigh heavily on what your mind concentrates on. And on what you extract from the text.
You usually read for
So try to choose one of the said purposes.
Of course, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the exact purpose of reading.
Nevertheless, you always do your best to determine it as precisely as you only can
2) Separate learning from reading
You are ambitious. That’s great. That’s admirable.
And very likely it is an invisible burden which hovers over your head and stops you from reading faster.
Let me guess.
You are trying to read and analyze information at the same time?
You see something thought-provoking, adjust your monocle and say, “Oh my, utterly marvelous. Let’s ponder over it for a while.”
Then if your goal is to read faster, you are setting yourself up for failure.
There is one crucial lesson here, you need to understand.
Reading is not learning. Learning is not reading.*
*it’s a good tattoo idea if you ever need one
Your brain is not a computer.
It can’t switch effectively between two absolutely different activities.
Do it for a short period and you will burn through all the glucose stashed in your brain.
A headache, the feeling of general fatigue, malaise and so on.
After a while, your brain becomes impervious to new information.
This method of reading is simply not very sustainable.
Mind you that I am not saying that you can’t read and learn at the same time.
I am just stating a simple fact that it is not a very effective method of reading.
To be honest, I have struggled with this problem for quite some time until the two beautiful words dawned on me.
I am sure you are familiar with the term but just to be sure.
Batch working is a process of grouping items because they are similar, or because we plan to do something similar to them.
For instance, it wouldn’t make much sense to make a huge omelet without preparing products beforehand. Can you imagine how ineffective it would be?!
“I need twenty eggs to make this omelet”
*takes two and cracks them open into a bowl*
“I need two more”
*opens a fridge and takes another two*
Doesn’t it sound frustrating?
This is why you should always try to group similar tasks together.
This is what you should do – this is the method which, I am pretty sure, saved my sanity.
1) First mark/highlight
Whenever you stumble across something that is
- you don’t agree with
mark/highlight it in some way.
Jot it down on a margin or copy it into some file.
Don’t try to dismantle any of the concepts you have read about.
The time for that will come.
Good. Keep on reading.
Marked another fragment?
Good. Keep on reading.
After reading a certain number of pages, set aside some time for a more detailed analysis.
Go crazy, analyze the heck out of everything.
Refute, digest, criticize to your heart’s content.
Learning is demanding enough on its own.
Don’t mix it additionally with reading.
3) Learn what you read
This one comes from a very frustrating experience.
About two years ago I was binge reading even 3-4 books per week.
Of course, being a sensible learner, I took notes and scribbled my remarks about everything even mildly interesting.
In quite a short period, I amassed notes from over 40 books.
The bad luck had it that I hit a rough patch and didn’t have so much time anymore.
After everything settled, I came back to reading.
I didn’t do anything with the notes, mind you. They just sat soused in my notebook.
Fast forward year and a half, I was reading some interesting excerpt from a book on the cognitive neuroscience. My eyes lay on a particular sentence which solved one of the biggest obstacles I had at the time concerning my memory experiments.
I was freaking ecstatic!
The worst part?
A couple of months ago, I finally strapped myself to a chair and started going through the aforementioned notes.
A couple of minutes into the reading, I saw it. There it was. Guffawing blatantly at my helplessness.
The same damn fact.
The miracle solution was there all along. I just didn’t learn it.
In the process, I wasted myriads of hours on useless experimenting.
Before you move to the next book, learn what you read before.
It makes perfect sense. Even more so if you want to specialize in some area.
Your average author spends hundreds of hours researching his book or summarizing his knowledge.
Without notes, you will spend dozens of hours reading it and end up with almost no knowledge.
You will remember just a couple of main things. Nothing more.
And it would be a damn shame.
Thanks to this strategy, your ever-growing knowledge will help you go quickly through most of the books.
It’s not unusual for me to read a 400-page book in less than two days. That’s nothing unusual.
There is simply not enough new information for me to absorb.
You don’t have to read everything.
You can skim through some paragraphs or descriptions. Nobody will judge you.
I am yet to hear, “John is such a filthy, primitive animal, I have heard he skips paragraphs. He sickens me!”
What is important for an author might be meaningless to you.
Take this article as an example. I thought it was important to include my personal experiences.
But maybe you don’t care. That’s ok, skim through such passages until you catch a glimpse of something more interesting.
5) Learn core vocabulary
Every industry and area of specialization is permeated by a specific lingo.
Love it or hate it, it’s still something you must learn.
My main area of specialization is learning/memory and everything in-between, like productivity.
It would be tantamount to kneecapping myself and expecting to run.
If you care about being good in the area of your choice, always try to master every word you encounter.
6) Build Core Knowledge
In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. – MORTIMER J. ADLER
I can safely assume that whatever you read, you read because you want to learn more about.
Or you want to master a given field of knowledge.
In any case, you should know that initially, your pace of reading will always be slow.
But that’s good.
Slow is new fast. This deceptive sluggishness is the speed of light in disguise.
Look at this excerpt.
In an imagery study by Okado and Stark (2003), increased PFC activity for false memories was localized to the right anterior cingulate gyrus. Given the role of the anterior cingulate in response competition and conflict (Kerns et al., 2004), the authors concluded that this reflects the increased effort involved in incorrectly endorsing an imagined item as “seen.” ERP studies also support the conclusion that frontal regions may distinguish between true and false memories, and be engaged in greater monitoring and evaluation associated with false retrieval (Curran et al., 2001; Fabiani, Stadler, and Wessels, 2000; Goldmann et al., 2003; Nessler, Mecklinger, and Penney, 2001; Wiese and Daum, 2006).
This is a typical excerpt from a book on neuroscience. If you have no scientific foundation, it can be hard for you to read even a couple of pages from such a book. Let alone an entire book.
This is precisely where building core vocabulary and knowledge comes together.
It’s one thing to get familiar with the nomenclature. But do you really understand how these terms interrelate?
Do you understand, at least superficially, what is their function?
If not, you have to analyze it. Only then can you move on.
It’s not fast. it takes time.
But there is not even one discipline in this world where you can skip basics
7) Read a lot
The more you read, the more efficient reader you become. The reader who knows ins and outs of different styles of writing. The one who knows when to skim and when to read deep into a text.
These benefits alone explain well why you should try to read as much as possible,
But there is one more reason.
The spiral theory of knowledge.
But what is it?
The spiral theory of knowledge describes a fascinating phenomenon.
First, when you encounter a certain idea, you might not notice or comprehend it. Not fully anyway. Then you move on to something else. You learn other subjects, read other books. Then, after some time, you encounter the same idea again and only then can you get your Eureka moment.
“How could I not understand it before?! That was so easy. The answer was there all along!”
And that’s a great question.
How come you didn’t understand this concept before?
Your knowledge was to blame.
At the time, it was patchy and full of gaps.
You were simply not ready to comprehend the full scope of the idea then.
The potential answer to whatever questions that might be bugging you, consciously or subconsciously, lies in yet another book.
Yes, there is a door behind the door.
But you will never know if it has the answer written on it until you open it.
8) Use the knowledge you learn
Many people love to brag about the number of books they read every month. They are like beautiful shiny badges. The phenomenon is so well-known that Issac Watts wrote about it in his book “The Improvement Of The Mind” in 1821!
Such persons are under a great temptation to practice these two follies. (1.) To heap up a great number of books at a greater expense than most of them can bear, and to furnish their libraries infinitely better than their understanding. And (2.) when they have gotten such rich treasures of knowledge upon their shelves, they imagine themselves men of learning, and take a pride in talking of the names of famous authors, and the subjects of which they treat, without any real improvement of their own minds in true science or wisdom. At best their learning reaches no further than the indexes and table of contents, while they know not how to judge or reason concerning the matters contained in those authors. And indeed how many volumes of learning soever a man possesses, he is still deplorably poor in his understanding, till he has made those several parts of learning his own property by reading and reasoning, by judging for himself, and remembering what he has read.
Don’t be one of those people.
Try to find even the slightest use, if it is only possible, for whatever that is you’re reading.
Impress someone. Help a friend with some problem. Find a better job. Anything will do.
Just don’t let it go to waste,
As I did for such a long time.
Years ago I used to learn every single fact about anything. Literally anything. And I am sad to inform you that it was mostly wasted effort.
I don’t remember almost anything I learned.
Why would I?
My brain didn’t find this knowledge useful. I didn’t find it useful. And so it had to go.
We are wired to follow the path of the least resistance. No wonder. We are drawn to, seemingly, easy solutions such as speed-reading.
But you already know the truth, don’t you? There are no easy fixes. There are no easy solutions.
And yet it is still possible to read fast. Even very fast.
But first, you have to put effort into building a foundation.
The very same effort which will make your newly acquired skill taste so sweet.