‘There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” – Bertrand Russell
Life is not a race. Speed is good for things you want to get past, not for important things you enjoy. “It was an efficient meal.” “I had a quick life.” If you are doing something meaningful you’d want the experience to last. You would try to savor and consider every single moment to extract the maximum value from it.
Sometimes people brag to me about how many books they read each year. “I read 40 books” or “I read 60 books.” My first thought is they’re probably reading the wrong books. Or reading them the wrong way. Any book I feel the urge to speed through means it’s either not very good or I’m not very interested. I’m a writer and I see the need for many people to read books, mine or otherwise, to make a living, but even I see the problem with conspicuous consumption.
You could drive by the Grand Canyon at 100mph. “I saw 20 landmarks today.” “Oh, really, I saw 45″. But did they see anything? Did they experience anything? They’d have felt and learned far more if they had tried to do far less. You can race through a foreign nation checking items off a list of “must-sees” or you can dig in deeper and actually experience something of the culture you’ve taken so much trouble to go and visit. Books, art, movies and meals are no different. Two people can see the same exact thing in the same moment and have entirely opposite experiences simply because of how quickly or slowly they pay attention.
The faster you read, the less you read between the lines.
Intimacy is slow. Depth takes time. If you want intimate thoughts, intimate friends, intimate experiences it can’t happen quickly. Some people tell me they have great reading comprehension even at speed. They challenge me to test them about information from the book. But I don’t care what they can recall. Being able to recall a fact does not mean they’ve considered it, examined it, or used it to change their thinking or how they feel about the world (which suggests that book clubs can help get the most out of the books you do read). Reading comprehension does not equal reading wisdom. Comprehension is for a test, wisdom is for your life.
Volume is easy. Speed is easy. Speed reading is measured in words, but a good book is defined by how deeply you are effected by its ideas. It’s quality that’s hard. It’s thinking that’s a challenge. “I read a 1000 books a year.” Who the hell cares? If you are doing it that fast it is an activity far different than what I do when I’m reading a book. Books aren’t just trophies to hang on your wall or to stroke your ego with.
Good writing, or good anything, offers us the chance to pause and reflect. It’s good to read a good book slowly. To take time to consider the new ideas you’re taking in. To ask questions with other smart people about what you’re reading as you read it. If you’re reading to learn you want to read thoughtfully. If you are reading good books you will be engaged and have little concern about how long it’s taking or how long they are. “The book is 500 pages? Forget it, I don’t have time.” That’s foolish. You’d rather read five 100 page books that suck? Would you reject a 7 course meal at your favorite restaurant in favor of a 3 course one? If it’s a great book you should be glad the experience can be longer. It’s bad books of any length that should be avoided. It’s quality not quantity that matters.
I remember as a college student reading to study for tests. I’d read and read with the singular intention of trying to extract answers to the questions I thought would be asked. This was shallow reading. Many books were unworthy but even for ones that were I raced past the most valuable opportunities those books offered as I was hunting something much more shallow. What are you hunting for? You should slow down when you find it. If you never find it, change how you hunt.