We all know that reading is important. But we’re also busy. So we try to optimize by reading more quickly. And in this way, we miss the point of reading entirely.
I’ve noticed this tendency since I began posting about what I learn from reading over 100 books a year. One of the most frequent questions I get is about how to read faster. Inevitably this request includes a link to a book, “scientific article,” or random blog post declaring that there’s a way to read 10 times faster. But if you care about more than bragging rights, the point of books isn’t how fast you read, or even how much you read. It’s reading for deep understanding.
A good book, like a good meal or a great vacation, is something you shouldn’t want to end. You’re not rushing to the finish. Instead, you’re totally immersed in the experience; you want it to last forever. Reading is supposed to take some time.
Moreover, while reading is the key to getting smarter, speed-reading is really just a fancy way of fooling yourself into thinking you’re learning something. In reality, you’re just turning pages quickly. A May 2016 review of studies on speed-reading, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, reported, “there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy. It is unlikely that readers will be able to double or triple their reading speeds (e.g., from around 250 to 500–750 words per minute) while still being able to understand the text as well as if they read at normal speed.”
If you’re reading fast, you’re not engaging in critical thinking. You’re not making connections between Infinite Jest and other post-modern texts; you’re not challenging a historian’s version of the American Revolution. You’re not having a conversation with the author. And if you’re not doing the work, you’re only walking away with surface knowledge. Reading should be mentally demanding. As Alexander Pope once wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”
I’d even go so far as to say that reading fast is worse than not reading at all. That’s because speed-reading gives you two things that should never mix: superficial knowledge and overconfidence. That’s a recipe for really bad decisions. And bad decisions, in turn, reduce the amount of free time we have, because we have to run around fixing all of our mistakes. When you think about it, a lot of people spend their days correcting their poor initial decisions. This gives you even less time to read. Whoops.
Here’s the good news: you can find the time to read deeply. 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?”
That said, finding time to read is simple, but not easy. So focus on a system of reading that enables you to not only read for understanding and knowledge, but that allows for large blocks of uninterrupted time. Set aside an hour in the morning or evening, or during your lunch break. Block out your weekend mornings. Don’t dabble—dive in.
As you engage in deep reading, you’ll steadily build your knowledge of the world. Knowledge, in turn, allows you to read a little bit faster naturally, with true comprehension and retention. It also teaches you which books aren’t worth your time, since they’re just re-hashing old ideas and offer little value. Hone your radar for a great book, be a little ruthless about culling the weak, and you won’t ever waste time reading.
So in the months ahead, don’t worry about how many books you’re reading. Instead, focus on how much time you’re devoting to them.
If you want to work smarter and not harder, join over 100,000 others and subscribe to The Brain Food Newsletter. You can follow Shane on Twitter and Facebook, and read more of his work at Farnam Street.