On reading faster
Let’s talk about reading faster.
We are immersed in text. Despite people reading less books every year, even the book-deprived among us constantly have to wade through text. And yet, most people I meet don’t know how to read quickly despite this being one of the few areas that present really low-hanging fruit for changing how someone can interact with the world - changing reading speed can be transformative.
Reading speed matters! It makes all the difference in how someone evaluates a book. One of the main reasons for this is that the return on investment of reading a book changes depending on how quickly you read. Let’s suppose you spend 30 hours on a book and get 2 units of value, compared to someone that spends 1 hour on a book and gets 1 unit. They got 30x more value for the time they invested than you did! And now they can use the 99 hours they saved and read 19x more things. So the total value that person gained from reading more quickly is hundreds of times greater.
Reading is also really special and unlike other forms of media. You can’t watch a movie 10x as fast as someone else and still enjoy it. Same with podcasts or sports or almost anything else... For reading, you can be 10-100x as fast as someone else - it's a game changer.
I’m nowhere near the top of the reading speed charts but over the years I keep trying to find new techniques to push myself to read more and faster. With faster reading speed I gain more in aggregate - the flow of the story, the flow of the dialogue, the flow of the moment. It’s in the speed that I get the value. And by speed I don’t just mean faster eye movements (although Google is full of techniques for that) - I mean different ways of processing the information on the page. With the more time I save and better ways of parsing information, the more I can extract and the more ground I can cover.
I find the biggest barrier to reading faster is the myth of reading things once - this is the way we normally think of reading: “Start at the first word, read every word until you get to the end. Don’t stop half way and don’t jump around.” It’s the way most schools indoctrinate us. But it’s wrong. Reading once and slowly is almost always a bad strategy - if it’s rich, relevant content you should read it more than once and dive deeper. If it’s bad content, then reading once and slowly is a waste of time. Good books have many layers that can be processed; bad ones should be gone through at speed and then discarded (like fast food). A book is not a book.
So, how do you read more quickly?
Be conscious about your reading speed — pay attention to how quickly you’re moving through the material. Speed should not be even throughout a book. If you don’t know the material / jargon, it takes longer and you’ll have to pause more. If you know the content, go faster.
Constantly ask yourself, what am I reading and why am I reading this? What's the purpose? Do I know this already? What level of detail matters? If it's a news article, skim skim skim. Read the intro, skim for interesting tidbits; if it's great, go back and re-read in more depth.
There is no law that says you need read linearly. Once you have the basic knowledge and know a lot about a topic, you should feel free to jump around, skip sections and go quicker. Push yourself! You are in control of the book, not the other way around - if you want to jump to the last paragraph in a chapter, go for it! Read the last chapter first? By all means. Free yourself.
Use grammar, text structure and format as your guideposts. For most news articles for example, you can read the first sentence of each paragraph and get a pretty good sense for what is going on - then you can dive deeper or go back wherever you have more interest. Is this an interesting paragraph? No, move on... Focus on the key nouns and verbs, look for changes in the paragraph (each paragraph an idea; all the ideas a chapter), guide yourself with punctuation.
For work documents, use the headers as your guideposts - scan the doc once or twice and then come back to the parts you think are most worth while. If it’s the whole doc, fantastic - but that’ll be an exception. Same for emails and anything else you encounter - get a lay of the land, spend time thinking about your purpose and then dive wherever you need to go.
Modify based on your attention-level and time of day. I find it's harder to read quickly in the morning and night when the brain isn’t active. If you’re feeling lethargic use the metronome technique ("1,2,3 eye movements per line, then go to the next line”)
If you need to process many books to research a topic: use “information reading approaches” - see "How to Read a Book" for detailed guides on this - e.g., read the index, table of contents, conclusion/ introduction; understand the value of key terms, main points, key examples. Relate to other work on the same topic and think more about the argument structure.
Actively drop books when they’re boring - do not waste your time. Throwing them or making sounds while doing so is very cathartic although not required. “
Of course, there are some areas where this doesn’t apply - with poems or novels for example, I enjoy the flow of the story and relish the way they’re written. For these I go slowly, enjoy each turn of phrase. Reading these books is leisure like watching a movie or a tv show.
But most reading isn’t like this. Most of the time, you’re reading for ideas - “this book changed my life”, “this book gave me a new way of thinking”, “this book introduced me to something new.” There are so many brilliant people that have written books - getting to cover more ground is a gift.
And finally, let me end with a tale of what is possible: Tyler Cowen probably reads 100x more than an average person. That’s not just a little bit more. It’s an entirely different way of thinking about information and learning. In his words, “I go through five or ten books a day. And which parts of them I’ve read you can debate – maybe it washes out to be two or three books a day. Some good nights you can get through five whole books…”. Five books a night!! This is madness - and my aspiration... Here’s my summary of his approach from his post on “How to read fast”:
BE RUTHLESS + GO FOR VOLUME: “Another way to read quickly is to cut bait on the losers. I start ten or so books for every one I finish. I don’t mind disliking a book, and I never regret having picked it up and started it. I am ruthless in my discards.”
READ FOR THE IDEAS - IGNORE THE EXTRANEOUS: “Sometimes […] there are just pages of terminology and it’s like, well, you might still give the book a chance, but you start turning the pages more rapidly. And you’re just waiting for some bit of meat, you’re like out there desperate, giving the author still a chance, and then at some point you’re like “No, sorry. ” Zap – throw it in the trash, on to the next one.”
READING ACCUMULATES OVER TIME - YOU GET BETTER THE MORE YOU KNOW (COMPOUNDING RETURNS): “And my philosophy of reading is that no-one reads quickly. So someone once asked me “How long did it take you to read that book?” And I said, “Fifty-seven years.” I’m fifty-seven years old.”
DIVERSIFY KNOWLEDGE AREAS - BEST BOOK PER AREA IS LIKELY AMAZING: “Every area you don’t given a damn about you probably should read at least one book in. Because the very best book in that area is superb, and you’re not going to know what it is. So if tennis is something you don’t know anything about, well, read Andre Agassi’s memoir. That’s a wonderful book. You don’t have to know about or care about tennis. And just go through other areas – gardening, dogs, turtles, whatever. Find the best book about dogs and read it, and the less you like dogs, actually, the better that book is going to be, because you are not sick of the topic.”
PARSE BOOKS - LOOK FOR THE GOOD PARTS AND MOVE ON: “Most books are not half great and half horrible. And you should look at a few different parts of the book. But especially these days an author should be able to signal by putting some good stuff up front. Because people are less patient than they used to be. A nineteenth century book you need to give it more time, it may not get good until chapter three, but these days, my goodness – you can tell so much sometimes just from the font of a book. Like there are books with bad font – management books – and you’re like “Oh my God! It’s that font again!” And you just throw it out – you don’t have to read it at all.”
BEST READING = FOCUSED READING TO SOLVE A PROBLEM: “The best reading is focused reading, when you’re trying to solve some kind of problem. So if I’m doing one of own podcasts with a guest, and then I’ll read or re-read everything the guest has written. Typically it’s a re-read because I have on guests I like, and if I like them I’ve already read a lot of their stuff. So you’re re-reading with an eye toward what is actually interesting about this person, and you learn much more that way than if you just randomly pick up books.
Photo: Yoko Ono reading a newspaper in Get Back.