Why Speed Reading Is For Fools

‘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. Skimming has its place but who wants to skim through most of life?

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.


47 Responses to “Why Speed Reading Is For Fools”

  1. Scott

    Perhaps we need terms like “I’m shallow reading this book because it’s a manual” or “I’m going to deep read this since a friend recommended it to me”

  2. MiscMarsha

    I think a lot of this behavior is a result of our obsession with the quantified-self. There’s an app that will track your progress for anything these days and we’re all in a competition with one another to “level up”.

    1. Scott

      Probably. Some important things are harder to measure so for people who obsess about scores there’s a natural problem.

      But some people are so competitive that they use anything to feel like they’re ahead, even though in many important ways they’re really falling behind (although the notion that everything is a competition where you’re either ahead or behind is a framework that isn’t necessarily true either).

    2. Bugra

      I could not agree more. Unfortunately, it is true for me as well. Almost everybody loves progress, everybody wants to see the progress they made and they want it quick. That’s why the most tasks to be accomplished or goals to be reached are those takes long time without being aware of progress you make. There are so many game-addicted people around. The main reason behind is that they can make and see the progress they make instantaneously.

      (I need to buy that thing and I need to play for 20 minutes for it. -20 minutes later- I did it! -Feels awesome for he succeeded at something. Dopamin is released. Groundwork for addiction is laid.- There’s another thing. I need to buy it too. It’ll take 40 minutes…)

      1. Josh

        I just want to put my opinion here. You shouldn’t group all the “game-addicted people” into the same stereotype of wanting instant gratification. I am one of the “game-addicted people” you mentioned and despite that, I thoroughly enjoy reading to the point that not only can my emotions be changed but also my mentality. On more than one occasion have I been awe struct by an idea found from a book and taken it to heart, sometimes to the point of change. Even the books whose ideas I didn’t agree with gave me the opportunity to reason out my ideals and strengthen my belief in my ideals. Whether you believe it or not, although it is admittedly much rarer, I find these moments within games as well. While a book will let me experience lives and situations far different from my own, making me questions certain aspects of my life and the way I think, some games do as well. Anyways, my point is that not all people who play games are in it for the instant gratification; in fact, under normal circumstances, I log over hundreds of hours into the games I own. The ones that don’t get that treatment are games which i didn’t quite like or just was missing something important for me.

        – sincerely, your “game-addicted” friend.

        (P.S. I didn’t want this to sound confrontational or rude or anything, I just wanted to be able to get my point across and hopefully clear a misunderstanding. I hope that if you or anyone else reads this they will also realize it and not discriminate just because of a person’s hobby.)

        1. Scott Berkun

          I think Burga meant people who game systems so they can appear to be more productive than they are, rather than actual gamers.

          That said, your point is good and well written. I’m an occasional gamer and I’m well aware how diverse the different kinds of games are (e.g. Bejeweled vs. Puerto Rico) and how sophisticated and deep they can be. But of course, even with great, sophisticated, deep games, there are people who choose to focus on speed to achievements, rather than enjoying the game itself. There is no escape! :)

  3. Philip Schwarz

    Apologies if I am being unoriginal, but your post reminded me of the following by the philosopher John Locke: “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours. We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections ; unless we chew them over again, they will not give us strength and nourishment. “

    1. Scott

      That’s an excellent and appropriate quote. Thanks for sharing it here.

  4. Mallard

    The approach I learned about speed reading is different than the people you described. Speed reading should be done in three passes. The first pass is a very quick scan to get an overview of the content: 1-2 seconds a page. The second pass is slower to fill in more details: blocks of a few sentences at a time. The third pass is slower yet: 1/2 a line at a time.

    The advantage of this process is that you build upon your understanding of what the material is about. The first pass gives you a loose expectation and structure. The subsequent passes then have a structure where new information and understanding is added.

    The other advantage of this method is that you can find out quickly how relevant the reading material is. Not all reading is for pleasure. If I am researching specific information, I can thin the pile down pretty well on the first pass.

    When I read for pleasure, I can turn the speed up and down as I wish. I am finishing a biography of Beethoven. The parts that described his personality and life were enjoyable to take in at a moderate pace. When the author started describing all the composition nuances Beethoven employed, I started the skimming process until he got back to the story.

    There are times when speed reading is a benefit and other times when it may not be necessary. To each their own.

    1. Scott

      Mallard: that’s an interesting method. Does it have a name? Where did you learn it?

    2. John Westworth

      I’m a fool. I follow the same process as Mallard.

      Why do I speed read?

      There are many books out there where the author appears to be paid by the word. That 500 page book? Probably could have been 100 pages.

      There are many good ideas hidden away in badly written books.

      There are some things I have to read – Those long winded exec emails or reports where they use 10 big words where 1 will do. You know the ones.

      I sometimes have trouble concentrating whilst reading.

      Speed reading, in these examples, helps me get through the content quicker, retain more information and keep focus.

      Of course for well written books like Confessions of a Public Speaker then I’ll immerse myself in the book and take my time :)

      Depends on the book and what I want to get out of it. Horses for courses.

      1. Scott

        John: Thanks for the complement.

        I agree there are cases where skimming and speed reading make sense. I also agree that many books, including business books, are poorly written or underwhelming in the advice they offer. Depends on the book is a fine answer, except in the case where one chooses to start speed reading something that is worthy of a slower pace – they might never notice since they started so fast.

        I offer my post as rant against the general case of people reading for volume, rather than quality, and there are many people who look at reading in this fashion. Perhaps it should be called trophy reading, as the speed of it isn’t so much the problem as the intention.

        I hope to write more books in the future worthy of inspiring you to read slowly :)

        1. Pasduil

          I doubt there is much “trophy reading” as such, esp as actual speed reading. If you want to impress people you can just buy the book without even reading it. Even without trying you pick up a lot of knowledge of the general thrust of a book from reviews and such, so speed reading it for the sake of saying that you’ve read it is not a thing that is going to appeal to a lot of people.

          For some people there might be some gamification element, where having a measure of how many you’ve read biases you towards getting through as many as you can. I don’t think many people are in that place either though. People who read a lot of books mostly aren’t disposed to think that way, and if you don’t read a lot there is not much point in measuring your reading.

          I can’t speed read but from what I hear from people who can and are also thoughtful readers, the main benefit is you can get through more reading in the time available to you. Some also say that getting through fiction faster is actually a more intense, more involving and deeper experience.

          I was always skeptical about speed reading, but this might be one of the those times when what people report from actual experience should trump our a priori skepticism from the outside.

          1. Scott

            I concede there is no way to be certain how what goes on in my head when reading compares to what goes on in someone else’s head. Certainly everyone has a different pace of reading that they find comfortable.

            However this lack of certainty doesn’t prevent having an opinion. From the comments clearly some people who do read for speed realize it’s a choice and their pace is different for different books. Fair enough.

            Perhaps a better example would be “speed watching” – it’s not a common practice yet, but you can watch a movie a 2x or 1.5x speed. How would our opinions of “consuming for speed” differ for film than for books? It’s an interesting thought experiment.

          2. Pasduil

            I’ve tried some MOOCs (online univ courses, with video lectures) and I also listen to a few podcasts. The media players for those typically have options to play the content faster than 1x, and apparently plenty of people like and use that feature.

            I personally don’t, but more because I don’t like voices sounding weird when played faster than because I couldn’t absorb the content. (Of course in some cases I’d actually want to pause or rewind the content and ponder it, not listen to it even faster.)

            That’s hard to compare with reading though because talking speeds are generally quite a bit slower than reading speeds, e.g. I can read subtitles in a fraction of the time the dialog actually takes to say.

            But I guess my skim-reading or speed-reading equivalent for video and audio is multitasking while I’m watching / listening. There are things I watch with rapt attention, but there are also things that I can watch perfectly adequately while also for example doing stuff on my iPad.

  5. Sean Crawford

    Hi Scott, such timing. I made a similar post, art related, just this morning… I wonder if the speedsters have time for fiction?

    The art book I mentioned in your Feb 3, Change Your Mind blog has quotes regarding language arts:

    “Much of the delight everyone gets from radio adaptations of classics is a straightforward delight in pace. The actors read much more slowly than the eye passes, especially the eye habituated to scanning the daily papers and skipping through magazines. It is just not possible to read literature quickly. Neither poetry nor poetic fiction will respond to being rushed.

    …Art, in its making and its enjoying, demands long tracts of time. Books, like cats, do not wear watches.”

  6. christopher mahan

    I’ve read maybe 700 books in the past 33 years (20 some per year) and those that were good stay with me. They are like good friens that shaped my life with good advice and good experiences. I would not go any faster.

    1. Scott

      20 a year is a solid pace.

      I also realized after finishing this post that I have books I’ve read many times and will again. It’s interesting to consider why this is useful: we’re different people every day, which means we’ll notice different things in a book (or a movie, or an album) than we did before. The great works have many layers and are worthy of repeat trips.

      1. christopher mahan

        I think that as we mature, we know more about human psychology, and re-reading a book lets us glimpse again into the author’s mind. With our new knowledge, though, peering into the author’s mind grows different with each reading. Also because each time, we form a more pefect picture of the author’s mind with re-readings.

      2. Pasduil

        I’m not sure why re-reading needs justification. We don’t feel the need to justify listening to a favorite piece of music repeatedly do we?

        The older I get the greater a proportion of my reading is made up of re-reading. Part of it of course is that wait long enough and you forget a lot of what was once completely familiar.

        On a contrarian note though, how many of the 700-odd books we might have slow-read over the years actually stay with us in any way? Would speed reading the other >90% have been beneficial? If we’d been able to read twice as fast, would we have ended up with double the number of books that turned out to be long-term-meaningful to us?

        1. Scott

          It’s hard to know how much books affect us even if we can’t recall them directly. I believe “stay with” is hard to measure – but I know I can’t prove that.

          I’m also starting to think that conversations with wise friends about a book can amplify the experience in many ways and that this is an ideal way to read some of the most important books we have. I’ve never organized a book club but I’ve thought about it for this reason.

        2. Scott

          btw: I loved the comparison of rereading books to re-listening to music. Nicely done.

  7. liz folk

    that’s why i like reading you when you write great truths so well

  8. Daniel Lock

    So true – I say read books for comprehension. My own approach is to read each morning when I get up as I have my morning coffee, then carve out a little more on weekends and travel. It also winds up and down depending on how much any particlur book inspires me. I have no idea how many books I read per year this way, but it is a priority for me.

  9. Viacheslav Snizhko

    I recognized that when reading some fascinating super-interesting novel my tendency is to read it faster. It becomes like a movie, it’s dynamic and you’re thrilled what happens next.

    But when reading some “true” insightful book, the tendency is the opposite. I often read some phrase, note it, and even close the book, digesting the thought for maybe even a couple of days. Rarely I come across that kind of books though.
    Another funny thing is to read through those notes after a year or so. Things that appeared to be epiphanies after a while seem so obvious that you don’t understand why you even noted them :).

    1. Scott

      That was one perspective I considered but did not put in. You’re right – good books can make us so interested in what’s happening that we want to read faster. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it’s the nature of our experience in the book that’s driving that desire, rather than the abstract wish to “finish more books.”

      But even in this situation it’s likely that details are missed – have you ever raced ahead in a book and realized there’s a detail the book mentions that you don’t understand, requiring you to go backwards a few pages to try to figure out why?

  10. Martin Unsal

    I’m not sure this is entirely fair. Some people both read and comprehend faster than others. Personally I am a relatively slow reader. But I have met some voracious readers who are not shallow at all in their understanding or the value they get from books. I am jealous of their efficiency. Let’s not paint with one brush. Not all fast readers are fools.

    1. Scott

      Of course there are people as you describe and I completely agree there is no universal standard for how fast or slow is too fast or slow.

      I do think that far more people confuse volume with quality, and speed with comprehension, than can truly read fast and with depth.

      There’s also the point that simply because a person can read quickly and at high comprehension doesn’t mean they’d get deeper meaning or pleasure from the experience if they read slower than they needed to.

      Arguably some people read infinitely slow, as they’re willing to reread the same book many times. It’s that way of thinking about books, that they can reveal more if we put more into how we read them, that I’m after.

    2. Antoinette

      I share this opinion, falling into the “reads faster than average” category. Just recently, I have noticed that books have a real rhythm and tempo for me, and how long it takes me to read is as much a factor of how quickly I fall into the rhythm of the book and the overall mood and tempo. The last two novels I read had 304 and 404 pages, respectively. The 304-page novel was devoured in 3 days, and only took that long because I was “re-entering” to home atmosphere after a week away, and had loads of laundry and other real life to catch up with. The 404-page novel took me nearly two weeks to complete, and for one week during this time I was on airplanes and otherwise had lots of free time to read. Can’t say I internalized one book’s themes and messages any better than the other just based on how long it took me to read each.

  11. Peter Sacco

    Thank you for this post, in my own opinion it is not necessary how we read or how fast we read on a certain book or what, it is how we understand what we read then so be it. I’m not saying that this post is wrong but you know we have different styles in reading that is all that matters.

    1. Scott

      Thanks for that link.

      The only thing I can say is that many business books are shallowly written, which affords shallow reading. There’s just not much there. This article in some ways is a response to the low quality of writing often found in even popular business books.

      We also have a cultural obsession with tips and platitudes and books that center on the 5 rules or the 7 tricks encourage advice like what’s offered in this article.

      I’d suggest reading better books, but if these are in fact the books someone wants to read then perhaps everyone, from the writer to the reader, feels good about the exchange.

      1. Mike Nitabach

        Agreed that most business books are terrible and not worthy of deep reading.

  12. Max J. Pucher

    Scott, I do speed read and maybe I am a fool in your mind. I speed read when I find that the content does not catch my attention and I slow down when things get interesting again. I am known to fast forward movies when I find passages boring or a waste of time. To me trodding through hours of useless crap for the sake of slow reading is rather foolish. But as always all generalization fail. For years I read hardly any books, then I had a few when I read about 50 a year some of them heavy quantum physics stuff. Now I am somwhere around 10-20 books a year. What has changed that I have them on my iPad Kindle and read them bit by bit. As I do not have to carry them around I can take more time. If I find a book good enough I will actually buy a hardback copy for my huge library.

    I mostly like your writing. That has not been one of your best … maybe you should take more time to read your own writing before you post it? Keep it up anyway, Max

    1. Scott

      You’re not a fool: there are of course times to skip and skim. I sometimes skip and skim too.

      The point is by having the mindset of skipping and skimming we run right past exactly the depth you’re looking for. My post had plenty of metaphors in it, travel being one of the most powerful ones. People who travel fast rarely experience what people who travel slowly do, even if what they claim they want is sometime powerful and meaningful.

      You wrote “As I do not have to carry them around I can take more time.” – That’s excellent. Taking more time is generally the way we get anything important and that was my point.

      1. Max J. Pucher

        Scott, thanks for the reply. Then I am not sure what kind of speed reading you are referring to. Skipping and skimming is not a mindset and it is not speed reading. Taking more time will not always the thing to improve your understanding and detail. I find for example references extremely important.

        Speed reading is not just reading fast and skipping pages. It is a technique that allows the brain to pick up the meaning of a paragraph by scanning it from top left to bottom right. Some can do that with a whole page. It takes some time to learn and clearly you must have the pattern recognition to go with it. there is no loss of content, there is just a loss of retainable detail. I know that things that I speed read I can’t recall, but I still know where in the book I read about the subject and can go back. I often visually see the page and the paragraph in my inner eye. When I read a paragraph normally I tend to miss the context much easier. It seems there are different levels of pattern matching at work.

        I also disagree with the travel metaphor and not for the sake of it. There are times when traveling fast is the only sensible thing. It is not a mindset. One can have a much better overall impression from a plane than from hiking through the woods. Some patterns you only see from space. If I travel to learn about an area I will go by car and when I see something that hits my interest I stop and walk. That is a bit like speed reading too. I try to not stop in places where everyone else stops but find my own spots.

        If you always focus on depth then it is easy to miss the big picture and how things are connected. Taking a broader look from further away will also provide important information that you won’t see by looking at the detail. I much like Russel Ackoff’s point that by looking at a British car in technical detail, it does not tell you why the steering wheel is on the right hand side.

    1. Scott

      Yes! I saw that the other day. Thanks for posting it here.

  13. Aneesh Karve

    No one needs to be running at top speed 24-7. At the same time, only a fool would write an article titled “Running is for fools” :-)

    “Speed reading” is an unfortunate name for a family of efficiency techniques. So let’s forget about speed and talk about efficiency. Every reader, irrespective of his or her speed, can choose to utilize the following techniques to absorb more information:

    0) Prime your mind to absorb the information. An excellent way to do this, for nonfiction books, is to begin by scanning the conclusion of the book and the conclusion of each chapter. Forewarned is forearmed. Now that you know what the author intends, you can absorb his/her points much better as you read the work in normal order. Also, begin by asking yourself, “What do I need to learn from this session?”
    1) Don’t subvocalize (we can see faster than we can talk)
    2) Don’t needlessly “back skip” and revisit old content
    3) Use your hand to guide your eye
    4) Read more than one word at a time
    5) Pace yourself

  14. Bugra

    Excellent article! However, they are exceptions. If I am reading a book that I actually read for joy, I prefer to read fast because there are not much to think over and in those books the aspect you enjoy is how events turn out and the excitement and curiosity of what’s gonna happen next. What I say is not to be done with every book you read for joy. For instance, I read Sherlock Holmes for joy, as well. However, I read very slowly, think over every event, how he solved it, many things as such. It is possible that I read one book of his adventures which may consists of 300 pages, could take me 2 months.

  15. Adriano

    There are many so called speed reading techniques, even an imbecile one called photographic reading, but the speed reading technique I use is the one that teaches me how to read properly – and so far my research goes, most of them fall into this category.

    There are a bunch of bad reading habits and a good speed reading technique can really help: improve eye movement, reading in group thoughts (not word by word), stop regressing etc. The only thing I have a hard time to follow is stop the subvocalization (even Tony Buzan used to say it should not be completely turned off), but I will give it a try.

    Since I started practising my reading improved a lot, from ~200wpm to ~500wpm (in my mother language, portuguese) with high comprehension (+80%). I’m using now 7 Speed Reading to practise and I hope to practise everyday this time; I’m on my third lesson and my reading speed + comprehension has improved by 5%, so my hopes are really high.



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