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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

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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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