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Maybe You Don’t Have a Problem

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For a grown man who writes for a living, I read very slowly and I’m self-conscious about it. Finishing a novel in less than two weeks feels like an accomplishment. If I love it from the start I’ll fly through it in a week or less, but usually that means I’m spending several hours a day on it.

Yet there are people who read two or three or seven or eight books a week. I have always wanted to be one of these people, and two months ago I decided to become one. My philosophy was simple: whatever they do, I will do that.

It seemed obvious that people who read five or ten times as many books as I do must be going about it completely differently. They’re not just reading—as I know it—more quickly. They must be using their eyes and minds in ways I never learned to.

So I dove into the dubious world of speedreading. I bought the best-reviewed instructional book on the topic, and promised myself I’d work through the program.

The technique was indeed very different from how I normally read. Zip your finger across the lines as a pacing device. Don’t say the words in your head. Don’t stop to reread anything you didn’t quite get—just allow the important words to come through and the natural redundancy of the material to fill in gaps in your comprehension.

And these instructions did do something. I found I was able to plow through non-fiction at more than double the speed right away, and actually comprehend most (I think) of the ideas presented. With words coming into my head that quickly, there was no time for daydreaming or distraction.

But it wasn’t pleasant. It felt like I was on a game show on the Food Network, scrambling to cook something presentable while a clock ticked down. My reading was quick, and not so quick as to be useless, but it was sloppy and completely devoid of joy. I don’t believe I was absorbing the material in the way the author intended. There’s no way would I read a novel that way.

When I investigated the topic of speedreading itself, I learned that it isn’t really a faster method of reading. It’s a kind of pragmatic skimming, very useful for consuming large volumes of material for school or work, or otherwise extracting vital information from anything you don’t actually want to read. But by most accounts it’s not a way to finally enjoy Proust. 

Deflated, I googled “How the hell do you people read so many books?” and found a thread on Quora, in which dozens of high-volume readers explained how they do it.

I thought I would find a bunch of techniques—how to move your eyes differently, how to bring a different psychology to reading. But almost all of their answers were some form of, “Well, I just read a lot. So I’ve gotten a lot quicker at it over the years.”

It felt like a dead end, but a good dead end. It occurred to me that I didn’t actually have a problem. Reading their straightforward answers left me with the distinct sensation of reaching the end of a wrong path, free to head back to the main road and use it instead.

Now that the secret weapon of speedreading has turned out to be a dud, I’m reading without troubling myself over it. I’m simply spending more time in my reading chair, and I’m finishing a lot more books. Whatever barrier was there doesn’t seem to be there anymore.

In addition to the increased volume, my pace has quickened in no time at all, and I think it’s entirely because I suddenly no longer see myself as reading-challenged. I don’t expect it to be a battle, and so it’s not. I just read the words, without the belief that I need to be reading them faster.

Read more, and get better at it over time—it’s the simplest answer to the problem, so why did I feel like I had already been down that street and found it didn’t go anywhere?

We’re quick to disregard approaches that don’t get us anywhere the first time around. You only need to dismiss it once, no matter how much sense it makes, or how well it works for others, and then you don’t look that way anymore. Maybe it happened for me while forcing myself to read Great Expectations in high school. After a trauma like that, a big thick book becomes a symbol of grinding, falling behind, being out-cultured by smarter, more mature people. Whenever I did open a book with six hundred pages of small inky print, I always found the battle I expected.

We probably do this a lot—live with lifelong impediments only because we assume we’ve exhausted the simplest approach.

I can’t count how many people I’ve met who think cooking is beyond them. They insist it’s talent-dependent, and they just don’t have it. So they never cook, and because they never cook, they can’t cook. To those of us who cook freely (if sometimes badly) this inability to prepare one’s own food comes off as absurd, and completely voluntary.

We can be very quick to self-identify as problem cases, and that alone can make you a problem case. It’s easier to accept the notion that there’s some secret information you don’t have, rather than to confront the possibility that you never followed through with the simplest, most obvious approach.

And once you’ve written it off, that door—the best door—will always look like a wall, until you realize you need to go through it anyway.


Photo by Brittany Stevens

Ravi December 26, 2016 at 11:42 pm

Thanks again for your article as always.

spot on with regard to cooking.

my initial 2 years in japan spent without cooking for myself, had a big time to manage my food here…. but when my wife came to japan, got pregnant, she had a tough time because of morning sickness.. she could not even get up from her bed… she will get up from bed only when she wants puke, pee, etc…. otherwise, she needs 5 times hot Indian dishes… my son was also not adjusted to japanese food then… this crucial time broke my complete thoughts about cooking… 4 months back i am blessed with a baby girl in india… since then i am alone here in japan, but enjoying cooking….

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:09 am

Learning a new cuisine adds quite a few difficulty points to the equation, so well done!

I’ve always cooked, but just recently I learned something incredibly simple about cooking that I somehow didn’t realize: recipes work best when you follow them exactly. I was always putting a little more of the ingredients I liked, and often they weren’t that great. And once that habit was normal it was invisible to me.

Avinash December 26, 2016 at 11:42 pm

Hi David

Thanks for this article. I could correlate this with what I always kept thinking. I always thought I don’t know somethings of my work and others know it. And I always wondered how others know it so well.I always thought work I do is tough for me. Once I stop thinking this , I empower myself to see my work with more confidence. U rightly said “And once you’ve written it off, that door—the best door—will always look like a wall, until you realize you need to go through it anyway.”

Thanks a bunch.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:10 am

Once we get a certain impression of the way things are, it often doesn’t even occur to us that it doesn’t need to be that way. As soon as we make assumptions they become a part of the terrain.

Curtis M Michaels December 27, 2016 at 2:27 am

I too am a grown man who makes a living writing (features reporter for local newspaper), and I have been frustrated by my slow reading speed for some time. Thank you. That old door is getting revisited.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:11 am


Ant Pugh December 27, 2016 at 2:56 am

Great article, I’ve always wanted to read faster! One thing that I have noticed helps is mindfulness, I think it helps me going down a rabbit hole of daydreams before realising I haven’t concentrated on the whole of the past 2 pages.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:12 am

It sure does, and this became obvious when I returned from a retreat this summer. Suddenly books were a lot more enjoyable and I moved through them more quickly. I daydream a lot, but I tend to notice more quickly when I’m practicing mindfulness.

Kay December 27, 2016 at 6:57 pm

Yes – mindfulness – a key to many things. That distracted busy brain syndrome is me when I’m busy and conscious I have a lot to get through in the day, so then I dabble here n there across the tasks, achieving very little except frustration.
Whereas if I make a list, then tackle an item at a time I’m amazed at the ease I achieve many items on that list over the day, with the pleasure of ticking each off at day’s end. Those not yet done become tomorrow’s list, etc. I might add reading isn’t a thing on my list, it’s my passion and one I practise most days, but even there I do have to enter the mindfulness phase otherwise I allow myself to be distracted by that ‘list’.

Vilx- December 27, 2016 at 4:00 am

I wonder – did really none of the speedreading crap help? Or perhaps there were some small things (like not speaking the words in your head, and sheer practice of reading as fast as you can) that did make some difference after all?

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:17 am

I’m sure if I kept up with it I would have learned some things that would be applicable to my goals, but it was a different kind of activity than the reading I’d like to do. I don’t want to use my hand to read, I don’t want to time and test myself, and I don’t want to move through sentences faster than they could be spoken.

It is also questionable whether subvocalization is even possible to avoid — speedreaders simply do it faster, or else they aren’t actually reading. This is one article I read on the subject: https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2015/01/19/speed-reading-redo/

chacha1 December 27, 2016 at 1:24 pm

I’m on track to finish 156 books this year so I think I qualify as a speed-reader, but I don’t use my hands and I do subvocalize. :-)

Zoe December 27, 2016 at 4:00 am

I guess it depends why you’re reading a particular book in the first place. To enjoy it or to finish it?

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:20 am

I think it’s common to have both these goals in mind. If you’re interested in gaining some lasting knowledge from the book, either factual knowledge or knowledge about how good writers write, simply having read it is useful even if you didn’t enjoy it. But reading is also enjoyable. If enjoyment was my *only* goal I would be less interested in getting through a higher volume of books.

Maryam December 27, 2016 at 4:48 am

What a great little read! I admire that you strove to better your reading volume by trying another approach but ultimately you did what’s right for you and to hell with other people’s reading volume. Quality over quantity any day.
I’m a great believer that individuals have particular mediums which seem to resonate with them best. For some, it’s the written word. For others it’s the spoken word. For many it is movement by which they communicate and express themselves best and even for those that prefer the medium of making things by hand, there are mediums within that like wood, metal or ceramics.
Cooking is a great example, I love cooking and will often make something nice for supper out of not very much left in the fridge or cupboard. But that’s probably because I think cooking is more an art than a science and a certain creativity with ingredients is necessary. In the same way, your approach to reading more efficiently took off in a scientific way only to end up taking the meaning and magic out of the process. Professor Brian Cox, the particle physicist was recently talking about what the purpose of science was. He reiterated that in science, you have to be prepared to always be proven wrong, not right, as that is the sole purpose of science and why it is a continuous pursuit. I think that is a crucial reminder along with the idea that artistic endeavour can never be proven wrong as such, it just is. Great art and ‘bad’ art, it’s up to you to like it or not. It is what you read that is more important.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:23 am

Totally… I’m starting to learn how much more valuable it is to find out you’re wrong than for your beliefs to be confirmed.

Gerry December 27, 2016 at 5:02 am

I love this post. I too went down all the speed reading paths and found no real gain. Possible the reduction of sub vocalizing is helpful. But as with meditation in the camp calm where you explained the importance of intent – I think this is similar. Having a strong intention (and sitting down to it) seems to move me along better. Also, again like meditation after a walk or a run, the body seems more willing to let you fold into a book with less distraction.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:25 am

As someone mentioned above, mindfulness practice seems to really aid reading, because central to mindfulness is learning to notice when you’re distracted. Distraction and daydreaming are definitely huge factors in my troubles with reading efficiently.

Pip December 27, 2016 at 5:52 am

I wonder if I’m the only one who tried out some of those speed reading techniques as I read this post?

My problem has never been my reading speed per se though, but rather, my tendency to get distracted while reading long segments of books. I should probably start using the internet less.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:27 am

We are definitely more distractable than we used to be. And you can see that in how literature is written. Authors used to pile on the words and pages, assuming that the reader isn’t going to jump ship. In Les Miserables, Hugo spends forty pages describing the Battle of Waterloo just to advance one tiny thing in the plot, and another thirty describing how the Paris sewer system expanded differently under different monarchs, just to set up the chase scene to follow.

Marco December 27, 2016 at 6:02 am

Great article David, thanks for writing it.
I too am a slow reader and it’s always bothered me, especially when comparing myself to friends who can consume a 300 page novel in a couple of days.
I’ve also looked into speed-reading, and rejected it for similar reasons.
apart from the nagging doubt that I was missing something important by doing so, I realised (particularly with novels) that I lost the flavour and the joy of reading when all I was doing was trying to cram the facts into my mind. There was no time for consideration, to allow my imagination to expand on the narrative, to feel what the author was trying to convey.

So I’ve reconciled myself with being a slow reader, and I only speed-read through dense administrative documents now, when I have to!

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:31 am

There are people who speedread novels, and I have no idea how they are experiencing it. Everyone must have a different subjective experience of what it is like to read a given thing, and it’s 100% private — there’s no knowing. I feel like my slow, measured experience must be richer, but who knows. I wish I could get inside the head of somebody who had an even deeper and richer experience with my favorite books.

Marcy December 27, 2016 at 6:18 am

“I’m simply spending more time in my reading chair, and I’m finishing a lot more books.”

Ha, ha. I have that same problem. As a knitter, I read the knitting blogs of others, and some of those people crank out the knitted goods pretty quickly. Granted, there is a difference in knitting speeds between people. And there are techniques to streamline your movements to make it go faster, but I realized that I wasn’t getting things knitted b/c I wasn’t knitting! I’d start a project, put it in the basket and not get around to working on it. So, two weeks would go by, and I’d think, “How come that scarf isn’t done. I should be able to knit a scarf in two weeks.” Duh.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:32 am

Haha… it’s hard to do something more efficiently when you’re not doing it at all

Victoria December 27, 2016 at 8:03 am

I like this article and it rings true. I knit a lot. People are always asking how long I’ve been knitting, and in awe of the items I do knit. But it’s no secret either. I knit, and I try new things, and I learn. But this article has reminded me that I have a goal of learning the harmonica and the time to start is now. So thank you once again for your writing.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:32 am

Best of luck with the harmonica. Get that face-time in :)

Josh December 27, 2016 at 8:03 am

Thanks for the article, David.

I’ve been down the speed reading path, myself, though my reading speed was already quite up there. I just wanted more.

I wasn’t really encouraged due to the loss in comprehension, though, so I decided to focus on that instead. Now I read at a more “medium” pace, with a stack of index cards to take notes when I’m reading non-fiction. Best decision I ever made with reading.

Sometimes we just have to try little experiments to test our own preconceptions. Hopefully those experiments lead to good insights! If not, on to the next one. :D

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:36 am

There is a fair bit of non-fiction I’d like to try reading at a higher pace, because I want to know the gist of the information but don’t necessarily expect to love reading it.

But yes, experimentation is at the heart of this insight, in this case experimenting with something I thought I had already tried thoroughly.

Gwen December 27, 2016 at 8:54 am

It’s true not only for reading, but also for just about everything in life. The more we do of something, the better/faster we get.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 9:38 am

Yes, and it’s so simple it almost seems pointless say so. But we haven’t necessarily taken something on board just because it seems obvious.

Réjean Lévesque December 27, 2016 at 9:52 am

When I read novels, I tend to skip over passages that bring nothing to the action. For example, I am actually at the end of Book Five of “Game of Thrones” (some 6000 pages in total), and after reading the first book, I noticed that George R.R. Martin used a lot of descriptions of clothing, and menus, and rooms. They brought nothing to the plot. They were used as ambiance or as anthropological details. So, I kind of skipped these in the other four books.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 2:54 pm

I don’t do this often with fiction, but in non-fiction I do skip sections when I think I either got the point already or don’t care about this particular point. It really clears up the logjam.

Once in a while I do it in a novel… like in Les Miserables when he took like 30 pages to describe how different monarchs approached the issue of Paris sewer system expansion with different philosophies. But my favorite writers would never tempt me to do that.

David December 27, 2016 at 9:55 am

Merry Christmas, mate!
Thanks again for another insightful read on a topic that also irks me! Happy to know I can just happily enjoy what I choose to read at my own pace without all the pressure to simply finish quickly.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 2:54 pm

Thanks David. Enjoy!

Esther December 27, 2016 at 10:20 am

Amazing, David. It really got to me. I’m one of those fast readers you mention, and even though English isn’t my first language I still read in English pretty fast and yeah it’s just practice. The more you do something the easier it gets. I really liked the way you used this idea to talk about many times we disregard something just because it didn’t work out well the very first time. I’m a teacher and I see this in my work all the time. Students don’t want to put in the effort, they say they can’t do languages, they want to speak perfectly from day 1 and get frustrated easily when they make mistakes. Even if you’re naturally talented for something, becoming an expert requires lots of effort and practice. In Spain we have a saying that could be freely translated as “nobody is born having learnt to do things” (nadie nace aprendido) and heck yeah it’s true but we (myself included) tend to get frustrated easily when things turn out to be a little more difficult than expected, but it’s important not to give up the very first time we give something a go.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 2:57 pm

Someone phrased this bit of wisdom once as “Embrace the part where you suck”. We are bad at everything we do when we first start, and you can’t get good at anything unless you continue doing it throughout that phase when you’re still bad at it. Sometimes we have to, for work or school, and we just deal with it. But with optional pursuits, particularly creative ones, we often quit because we hate the feeling of performing poorly.

Vashti December 27, 2016 at 10:33 am

This is interesting. I’ve never studied speed reading myself, but I am hyperlexic – I began reading independently before the age of 1, was fascinated by text, letters and numbers, and tested with an adult reading age at 3. I read *extremely* fast. I’m not aware of any loss of comprehension, primarily because I read and reread paragraphs several times – rather than skipping from word to word or sentence to sentence, my eye tends to scan over whole blocks of text and absorb them.

I think for the most part I just subvocalise very fast. But then I don’t usually vocalise my thoughts to begin with.

My impression is that speed reading tutors are attempting to emulate what hyperlexics do, but that this is an innate biological difference which is unlikely to ever be effectively taught in full – like trying to learn to count thousands of pennies at a glance. That’s not to say that, as you say in your article, *some* adaptations can’t be made.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 3:01 pm

In my research, part of what has obscured the limitations of speedreading is the fact that there are “naturals” out there… people who have a tremendous natural aptitude for absorbing meaning from text. As you say it probably can’t be learned, but the existence of these individuals helps speed-reading marketers convince people it is possible to 4x or 5x one’s top reading speed.

Angie unduplicated December 27, 2016 at 11:12 am

I speed read, to an extent. In non-fiction, I scan paragraphs to “get to the point”. Simply written fiction is easy to read this way, since I am immersed in plot and characterization.

With really well-written or complex work, I want to savor phrases and sentences and read much slower with many pauses to think about the style and content.

Enjoyment of Dickens eluded me for years, until I found out that he wrote his stories as serials, to be read aloud a chapter or a few pages at a time. In his day, reading aloud to the family was the equivalent of today’s TV. Certain teachers seem to take an obtuse pleasure in teaching students to hate reading. Read it like you love it, not like a requirement.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 3:04 pm

I still can’t understand why they would force teenagers to read stuff like Dickens. There are so many books they’d be more likely to get into. We want them to love books so we give them a slow-moving 600 page novel about 19th century England?

Burak Sahin December 27, 2016 at 11:24 am

“Don’t stop to reread anything you didn’t quite get…”
Without intention, I stopped to reread this. I guess speed reading is not my thing either. :)
And thanks for the simplicity reminder.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 3:05 pm


aman December 27, 2016 at 11:57 am

Thanks for that, really precise and simply written. Your writing has a Seth Godin aspect to it in that you have a simplicity and directness to it. What you wrote about self identifying and becoming problem cases, reminds me of something that I was thinking about the either day of confirmation bias. We can look for things that prove and reinforce our own (limiting?) beliefs and not seeing other ways (opposite) of doing things. Also, I wanted to share with you the photo reading system. I have used that and it’s proved beneficial: http://www.photoreading.com . For my university dissertation, I used a lot of the processes outlined and managed to read several books in week 1 and week 2 write out several thousand words and type them up. Ironically, the mark I received was the highest I got on the illustration course I was doing lol. It might be useful to you and other readers of this site. Thanks for another cool post.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 3:10 pm

Confirmation bias must be a huge factor in how we behave. We self-identify as a person who sucks at X, so we don’t do X, and so we can’t improve. And we even defend ourselves against the suggestion that maybe we could do it if we tried… “Oh you don’t understand — I couldn’t sing a song to save my life!”

kim domingue December 27, 2016 at 1:18 pm

During the first few years we were married, my husband would jokingly accuse me of just pretending to read a book because (according to him) I turned the pages much too rapidly to actually be reading. Took me a while to convince him that, yes, I really was reading and not just page flipping to aggravate him. You see, he read very slowly it embarrassed him.

While I did not start reading quite as young as Vashti nor do I believe that I am hyperlexic, I read in much the same way she describes. Family lore has it that I started reading at about two and a half. I have no memory of learning to read nor can I remember ever not being able to read. My husband began learning to read in first grade. Books were a plentiful and easily accessible in the home I grew up in. That wasn’t the case in his childhood home. I grew up around people who read for pleasure. He did not. Does any of this have anything to do with our respective reading speeds? I don’t know. But my brother in-law’s children grew up in a household much like their father and uncle’s while ours grew up in a household much like my childhood home. Our nephews both read very slowly while my children read rapidly.

I told my husband years ago that the more he read, the faster he would be able to read. He finally quit worrying that he couldn’t read as fast as I did and started just enjoying the process. He now reads at a respectable pace. The more you do a thing, the better you become at doing the thing whether it’s reading or cooking or running a marathon. You may improve in leaps and bounds or you may only improve in small increments but you WILL improve.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 3:12 pm

Your story here is typical of the ones I found in the Quora thread. Started reading at a young age, house full of books, no memory of not reading or having trouble with reading. Those circumstances seem like they’d naturally result in a lot of reading experience by adulthood. But I guess it’s a chicken and egg thing. Aptitude leads to experience, experience leads to aptitude…

gepee December 28, 2016 at 6:52 am

Yeah, that could be me also, I don’t think i’m hyperlexic, but I learned reading so early that I don’t remember it, I always loved reading and there always were tons of books available in my home. I read “War and Peace” the first time when I was thirteen. So, on the afternoon of my first day in school I read all the books we were handed out for the first schchoolyear to learn reading in one sitting. But I was one of the last in my class to have memorized the multiplication table and I just can’t imagine how it is for some people to whom numbers just “speak”. So what? I still learned enough to be able to manage my finances or calculate the measurements for a quilt I want to make, so what does it matter that I need more time for that?
I do think reading faster can be a good thing for job and study sometimes. But otherwise, I get more and more suspicious about all the self-improvement nowadays – I don’t want to see myself as some kind of machine who needs to get more and more efficient all the time, I much more want to learn to practice mindfulness and experience and enjoy what is happening.
And for fiction, I really wish I could read slower, I really think I miss some of the enjoyment by reading so fast. Are there some slow-reading courses out there?

marian December 27, 2016 at 1:45 pm

I’m a super slow reader, which does mean I don’t read as many books. (Embarrassing when I’m the one with a PhD in English literature I can tell you!) My step-mother is one of the fastest readers out there, and while she’s much more well-read than I will ever be, I wouldn’t trade places. I enjoy being able to stretch out a good book, and savoring it slowly when I read. I’m okay with not reading all the things.

What you say about cooking strikes home, though. I identified as a non-cook for a long time until I did the paleo diet for a month and I had to cook. Though I still like to lower people’s expectations about my culinary ability, I also have really enjoyed the process of becoming someone who can cook–and sometimes it even turns out well! There’s a great joy in the sense of connection to food and a larger life cycle gained through cooking, not to mention a much larger world to explore via opening that door. I am glad I opened it. Thanks to your post, I am going to think about other doors I may have closed in a similar way that might still be waiting to be opened. While there’s a lot of comfort in limiting ourselves, there’s so much freedom and joy in admitting that we can do more than we think we can, and that we are more than who we think we are. Thanks for the reminder.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 3:17 pm

I am also excited to find other doors that I’ve assumed the whole time are walls. It’s neat that they’re invisible until you try them, because surely there are some things I’ll be good at in a few years that at the moment I’ve written off and never think about. I always cooked but recently it occurred to me that I might be able to do it particularly well. Now I’m paying a lot more attention to getting the heat and cooking time right, using good ingredients, and so on, and magically my cooking is significantly better, and this is before the effect of improved skill and more experience actually kick in. The expectations we bring to everything we do accounts for so much of the result.

Francisco Fiuza December 27, 2016 at 2:11 pm

David, I think you will like this article: http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-sections/features-issue-sections/16352/speed-reading-does-not-work/

I like to compare it with eating. I sure can put all my food in a blender and drink it in a couple minutes, or I can appreciate my food, eat slow, savor every piece and enjoy the experience.

My reading pace is around 10 pages / hour, which is not fast, but I’ll average a book of 300 pages per month if I read one hour per day.

I like to think in terms of time spent instead of pages read. I think like I’ll take a bath on the book river. So when I read I think “time to take a hot bath and enjoy”!

I like to stop and think about a paragraph, take notes, reread a page. Imerse myself into the story or ideas. That’s what reading is all about.

David Cain December 27, 2016 at 3:20 pm

Thanks for the article, I will check it out. The speed reading world is full of charlatanism, and my first tip-off was the tone of the speed-reading guide I was reading. It was so full of pump-you-up promises and pandering that it felt like I was at a multi-level marketing seminar. I looked into the issue online and found a lot of well-founded skeptical articles like the one you linked here.

Anita December 27, 2016 at 3:22 pm

Thanks David. I had a similar experience about forty years ago, when I developed speed reading skills without really trying. At that time I would get up at the same time as my husband, dress etc before driving him the short distance to the station. This left me with a solid hour of reading time before I left for work, ( a school 30 minutes drive from my home).

There were other opportunities for reading during the day, however it was the regular, uninterrupted hour of reading in the morning that saw me get through books at a prodigious rate.

Every week I’d borrow an armful of books at a 2:1 ratio of fiction to non-fiction! Seemingly without effort I managed to stop the voice in my head as the words on the page began to take a direct conduit to my brain.

My skills have disappeared with lack of practice I’m afraid, though I still count that period of my life when I did the most learning. Much of the information stayed with me and make up the bulk of my ‘prior’ knowledge.

Unfortunately the internet has brought a change in my reading style and I now seem to baulk at a long read and steer towards the quick fix of a shorter article. I am older now, so maybe that accounts for my shortened concentration span.Another change that’s come to my attention is my desire for more factual material! A work of fiction needs to be really engrossing before I can sustain interest for more than 50 pages.

Matthew December 27, 2016 at 4:11 pm

Hi, I read several non-fiction books a week. It’s just a matter of putting aside the time. I think all the evidence suggests speed-reading, if it works, just means trading comprehension for time. Even reading a book at an average pace it’s hard to absorb all the relevant facts.

To help readers I’ve started a site: http://thebookreviewblog.com/. Where I provide short book reviews for free. My aim is to pull out the main facts so readers will get the key points of a book and know whether they would like to read more.


a) I will learn something (remote, but there’s always a chance)
b) You will learn something (I’m sure you will, and fast because I’ve summarized it!)
c) We’ll all get a good exposure to a wide array of books, which will help us choose what to delve into further.

Carolyn Sill December 27, 2016 at 7:55 pm

Thank you for this post, and for all of them actually. I’m grateful to have found your site and I look forward to each post.

Linda December 27, 2016 at 9:05 pm

Just what I needed to read right now. I’ve been struggling for months with learning to paint. Recently it hit me that I’m never going to improve if I don’t just do it. I’d been letting my fear of being “bad” keep me from jumping in and working at it. You know what? I’ve been doing it, a little here and there, and enjoying it more and getting better at it. And yes – having fun! Thanks for the reinforcement.

thomas paciello December 27, 2016 at 9:32 pm

Wow, I could have written this myself. I have felt the same way for a long time. Why does it take me so long to read a book? You are so right. Just read more. Spend more time in the reading chair and less time in the tv chair and it won’t take you 2 weeks to finish a book.

Thank you so much for your post.

Geri December 28, 2016 at 4:29 am

I am a natural speed reader and have to make the effort to slow it down or I will miss important bits, I am envious of natural slow readers, enjoy what you have X

Alexandria December 28, 2016 at 11:23 am

You don’t have a problem, David: some of us just read faster. Long ago and far away, in the galaxy known as High School, I decided to take a speed-reading class. So did dozens of others, though they wanted “easy As”. We had to set our baseline reading speeds on day 1. I read normally. My speed was 500 wds/minute. Everyone else’s was about 25 wds/minute. I was shocked. Then the teacher explained grades: double initial reading speed by end of quarter = C. Triple it = B. Quadruple it = A. Apparently, everyone in class had known that but me. Teacher could never understand how everyone always got As. Though I’ve used actual speed-reading techniques a few times in my life, it’s never been pleasurable, but I still read fast. Naturally. Just enjoy reading at any speed you go, David. Best, A

Primal Prosperity December 28, 2016 at 3:35 pm

I’ve been that person reading several books a week. Now, I try to incorporate other activities like writing and other creative pursuits.

When I was devouring books, it was because I was spending a lot of time on them. I wasn’t on the internet much, I didn’t have TV, I listened to books on tape when I drove, walked, gardened, cleaned, etc… I always had a book with me and every time I had to sit and wait for something, I pulled out my book and read. I would do squats and lunges and read. I would read on my breaks and lunch hours. I would read in the bath and on the treadmill.

I agree that speed reading really isn’t a thing. But, I did realize that there were some books with content that I could ‘skim’ and take away the important parts, while others were meant for sitting down with undivided attention. Some really good books will take me weeks to read, because I only open them up when I am in full immersion mode. That is also why I typically have more than one book going at a time.

Fran December 29, 2016 at 9:32 am

As a child, I would tear through books so quickly because I was such an avid reader. I recall that my father would be shocked that I read all 3 of the books I had picked up at the local library earlier that day, and be done by the next day. However, I find that as an adult, my fast reading skills have lead me to skip over important details and I now find myself wishing I was a slower, careful reader. In our face-paced world, it’s a skill now to slow down and enjoy things that bring us joy. I would not see being a slow reader as a hindrance at all.

John Vriezen December 29, 2016 at 10:29 am

This won’t apply to reading dead-tree books, but have you looked at ‘spreed’ ? It allows you to read text on computers, tablets and phones much faster by flashing the words at you at the same point on the screen, so you don’t have to move your eyes left to right. It also highlights one letter and positions the word optimally to help even further. I find it rather effective, and you can adjust the speed to something that is to your liking. I’m not sure if there are variations for different e-book formats and such, but for web articles and blogs, it works well. Your field of vision that is able to discern a word is very small, so you are forced to move your eyes when reading traditional text.


John Abraham-Watne December 29, 2016 at 1:06 pm

This is a much different article than those you wrote before your recent revelation to try writing more, no matter if you think it’s ready for posting or not. To that end, it’s much more open and self-reflective (even for you!) and therefore that much more challenging and engaging. I can almost see your mind sifting through the tasks you present yourself, and what you’ve learned from the experience. Bravo!

Raisin mountaineer December 29, 2016 at 1:38 pm

I am a naturally fast reader, and I read some things faster than others. When I am reading for pleasure, I feel my eyes relax, take things in, and I have no sense of words at all- I “see” the scene and characters, and I “hear” them speak. The story unfolds itself without effort, very quickly.

However, when I’m reading nonfiction or something instructional (like your essays) I find myself having to go back over and over because my eyes won’t slow down without effort. I often use a bookmark to force myself to read each line and word on the line. I’m still really fast but the type of material makes a big difference.

Raisin mountaineer December 29, 2016 at 1:42 pm

On the other hand, your theory holds water across all kinds of actitivies. I am envious of excellent musicians– they seem to play without effort. However, they almost without exception play a LOT and they have built up a skill level over time– simply by persistence. Funny how that works.

Deanne December 29, 2016 at 7:35 pm

My dad taught me to speed read when I was a kid. It definitely helped with school and I am a voracious reader . However in the last few years I’ve joined a book club and noticed that I don’t savour things as much as I’d like – so my challenge is to slow down and linger.

When I did finally crack open Proust, it took me all summer, but was well worth the time.
Speed reading is still useful for trashy novels , skimming information, news or whatnot, and luxury reading is best saved for writers who have invested the time with their words to make the process worthwhile.
Yes – relax into it – who cares how long it takes – enjoy. Cheers

LennStar December 30, 2016 at 12:58 pm

I also found speed reading not enjoyable. Also, after about half an hour, my head starts to ache.
I have easily 50 pages of book by then of course, others need 3 hours for it :D

But I dont do it if I want to enjoy something and never on first reads. I alsways “think” the words then.
On second or third – or blog posts or anything else for information – I might go into semi-speed mode. I still think the words but in triple speed. In such a way I can read anything uncomplicated without losing content.
Like this post I can easily read in 3 minutes.

Again, not for enjoyment. Enjoying things needs the time to savor them, not only in reading.

Michele December 30, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Hi, David — one again, bravo for another post that opens up so many questions and responses.

I’m one of the early readers who found refuge in books and their magic worlds when mine was a mess. I “see” the scene, “hear” the voices, etc., as I read. I love the anticipation of trying to figure out where a good book is heading while I’m reading it.

I’ve even been known to let my connection to the characters and story force me to sneak a peek at the last few pages, to see who’s still standing. I’ve dropped books when the “wrong” person wins over the “right one”. Then I’ll read backwards, a chapter at a time, to find out what happened.

I learned to read phonetically, sounding out words, discovering what the pieces meant, and how to put them together. Reading was a treasure map. To this day, I’ll read anything I can get my hands on, including food boxes for things I’d never eat.

My husband learned sight-reading, and has been a terrible speller and slow reader his whole life. He reads a lot, one book at a time. I’ve got several going at once. It’s dangerous for me to pick up a book, because I never want to put it down until I’m finished, which can mean reading all night.

As great as I was at reading and comprehending text, I was terrible at math. Perhaps it was due to the world’s worst fifth grade teacher (Miss Corkle, in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, in the mid-1950’s — I’ve wanted to say that publicly most of my life!!!). (But huge kudos to Miss Elliott, my third grade teacher at the same school. She inspired me and gave me great confidence in reading and spelling.)

I still remember Miss Corkle coming along behind me, drawing deep red lines down my page of long division. My numbers, calculations, etc., were correct, but my work wasn’t absolutely straightly lined up; it slanted slightly: “\” instead of “|”. She always Spocked my neck when demonstrating to the class how I’d failed and would continue to fail at such a simple thing.

As I’ve gotten older, I spend more time reading ebooks, which I thought I’d never do, especially because I can adjust the font and size. Perhaps it’s my imagination, or the expense of publishing, but it’s harder to read the words in many books. When I can get a large print book from the library I do it.

The last point I wanted to raise in this over-long response has to do with paying attention to where I’m at, how wired up I am, etc., as I approach a book. There are times we need Disco music and other times, calming flutes.

I picked up Life of Pi and The Number One Ladies Detective Agency several times before I was able to read them. My life was whirling too fast for me to slow down and savor the stories, settings, and context. Once my mind was congruent with the pace, I loved the books.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, the opposite, also had to wait and be ready to be read when I was in the right frame of mind — then I devoured the trilogy in less than a week, with a few hours for sleep, eating, getting lectured for my obsession. I’ve gone through them, along with the fourth book, several times.

So — apologies for the length.

How we learn to read (phonics vs sight reading); where our heads are at when we sit down to read; our openness to move out of our comfort zones in material; and honoring the deep feelings about what we want when we sit down to read, all determine the experience we get.

Without overthinking it, when we pay attention to what we need from a book or story, we can find and enjoy the experience. It’s like going out to eat — when I want BBQ ribs, coleslaw, and fries, no amount of chicken soup is going to satisfy. Switch the need, and the ribs will be upsetting to the system when I crave a bowl of soup.

Thank you again for all of your insight, David. You bring a needed dollop of sanity and gentle common sense to a world that seems to be doing its best to go mad.

Raisin mountaineer January 1, 2017 at 12:16 am

Michele, you made me laugh out loud, because I also often read the last few pages of a book to find out what happens. This primarily serves to allow me to slow down. If I know who done it, for example, I can enjoy the details of the mystery, instead of plowing through at top speed to get to the end. In nonfiction, I often skim through all of the chapters to see where I want to spend there most energy– and then I back up into the book and reread at whatever pace I want for the portions I’m interested in. Im glad to know I’m not alone in my reading habits…

Carolyn December 30, 2016 at 9:42 pm

I conceive that I read quickly because I learned by reading along as my mother read to me (or with my older sister.) Consequently I expect reading to go along at nearly the pace of heard speech, as I perceive that thinking does.

(I probably do sometimes think visually rather than aurally, but without attaching words, I can’t really remember it, and tend not to think of it as ‘thinking’. Other people seem to be different, on this score.)

Further reflection says that when reading, not only do I not ‘pronounce along’ with what I’m reading, I don’t necessarily imagine an actual voice.

So your very interesting piece makes me wonder, Are you reading ‘aloud’ to yourself, in your head? Or are you not an auditory processor at all?

Jon Omar December 31, 2016 at 4:51 am

Dead on, could not have described my relationship with reading better myself. I also tried the speed reading thing but it felt like watching a movie on fast forward, efficient but exhausting.

There are two things that I now do that work for me. The first is audiobooks. Most of the mainstream titles are available through apps like audible and I listen to them on the bus, when doing work around the house, riding my stationary bike etc. The second is that I just go for the short books. There are so many books out there on any subject so given a choice I select the short ones. The style usually suits me anyway since I have a preference for a more concentrated content.

Thanks, and a have a happy new year :)

Cecilia Poullain January 1, 2017 at 12:40 pm

Hi David,
I am one of the quick readers – probably because I get so gripped by the story I’m just reading for the story rather than for the style. It also means I forget books a lot faster than other people. I know some very brilliant people, including a world-renowned astrophysicist, who reads very slowly, if that’s any consolation … I started writing a couple of years ago, and it has actually slowed down my reading a lot, because I’m more interested in looking more at the way the author has written.
Happy New Year!!!

Zsuzsa January 2, 2017 at 11:01 am

Hmm… surprising learning. Sometime the easiest answer it is, right? :)
For 2016 I challenged myself to read 10 books, which is not a really challenging goal but I failed even that. I am also not spending enough time reading – used to commute a lot that helped, now I live in a walking distance to my workplace. So I save a lot of time, still I’m not using it for reading. Plus one other thing I realised: I often get stuck reading the wrong book. I pick something because someone recommended or because I feel I should read it, and I stubbornly keep up with it and not realise: I’m not reading because I don’t want to read THAT book. And so I don’t read at all.
So I’m going to follow my friend’s method, who every Sunday evening makes a conscious decision: to stop reading that week’s book as he have not finished it because it’s not worth reading, or to give it another week because it just needs more time. I’ve found his method really helpful.

Sarah January 3, 2017 at 2:16 pm

What a lovely hopeful post for the start of the year! Thank you …

Edward January 3, 2017 at 2:52 pm

Good God, man–“Great Expectations”? I’ve read many of the classics–Melville, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Twain, Byron–but that Dickens tome is one I kept beside the bed for nights when I absolutely *needed* to fall asleep fast.

Nicola January 9, 2017 at 12:01 pm

I completely agree; sometimes the answer to how other people seem to manage something is that they just do it. In fact, I nearly laughed at this sentence, because I’m one of those fast readers and my ‘secret’ is that I *do* spend several hours a day reading:

“If I love it from the start I’ll fly through it in a week or less, but usually that means I’m spending several hours a day on it.”

When I’m enjoying a story, I’m eager to pick it up whenever I get a spare moment. And at the same time, I feel naked without a book nearby, so when I finish one book I’m quick to pick up another one.

Pradeep January 10, 2017 at 2:35 pm

I too am a “slow reader”, but I have realized that yes, it is a matter of how much you read – the more you read, the better and faster you get at it; but also, that the way you read can make a big impact.

I used to buy and read hardcover copies of any book I was interested in. Now, I buy the Kindle and audio book versions. That way, I will be reading a book, or a few books, at any given time and they all stay in sync. Read at night, listen to the book in the car, and repeat. This way, I knock out two books a week, versus my old rate of one book every two weeks, if I was diligent.

Also, reading on my Kindle device, with the font and spacing arranged so it is easier to flow my eyes while reading also has increased my reading speed considerably.

Krista January 17, 2017 at 12:46 pm

I have found that reading speed has been influenced by several factors, some of which have been mentioned in the comments here. Interest in the book or the style of writing are big for me, I remember plowing through Anna Karenina in a day or two, but other pieces took weeks or months as I read some pages over and over. Maybe I had a “block” or was not ready to consume the material? Sometimes I lose interest in a book and put it aside and read something else and come back to it later. Do you find that true for you?

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