After a pause of a few months, I am going back to speed reading. I had given it up for being too much like hard work, but recently I have not been reading nearly enough books. And reading books is how you get cleverer — a lot of books.

First, the method. When speed reading you essentially try to read very quickly. I know that sounds obvious, but it is not the same as skimming, where you deliberately miss bits out, perhaps by reading the start of paragraphs and jumping over the ones that don’t look interesting. The idea of speed reading is to take in the meaning of the words without saying them all one-by-one in your head. I find it works best if I drag a finger down the middle of the page while casting my eyes rapidly over the lines in order to take in all the words. I read Speed Reading by Tony Buzan (he of the mind map, so I understand if you take it with a pinch of salt), and I have recently seen 10 Days to Faster Reading recommended (albeit by a commercial site).

It is true that you don’t get quite as much depth reading this way as you do when reading more slowly. This is not because you don’t take in all the words — you do — but because there is not as much time to think about what you are reading as you read it. But unless you are reading a textbook or a detailed argument where every paragraph needs to be given careful consideration, that doesn’t really matter. This really struck me after I had finished my latest enormous book: I found that I had forgotten most of the specifics (names, dates and so on). The point of reading it was to get a general impression of the subject. So I went back over all the books I have bought from Amazon this year and listed the things I could remember about them — and I found that, of course, I remembered the broad themes and a few specific points and had forgotten most of the detail. I had not gained very much from taking more time over the detail. So I draw three lessons:

  1. If you are reading a complicated argument, there is no point in just reading it, even slowly, because you will forget it. If something needs to be read slowly, it also needs notes taking on it.
  2. If you are reading more general material, there is no need to read it slowly.
  3. You really get to know a subject by living with it for a while and going over the same material several times. Better to speed read a few books on a subject that to spend ages over one.
One advantage of speed reading is that you have to do it actively — you can’t just let the words wash over you, and then look up at the end of the page and find you can’t remember what it was about, because to speed read you have to concentrate, and if you aren’t concentrating, you won’t be reading. One reason I gave it up was that it doesn’t really work when you are tired, but actually neither does reading slowly, because reading slowly when you are tired is a good way of getting bogged down in a book.
I do need a lot more practice at speed reading, but I read 70 pages of a book about economic data releases this morning in about an hour and my retention seemed quite good. I should also take more care to read actively — on which technique there is a good paper here.