Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Truth About Speed Reading

How important is speed reading in today's information overloaded world? What do the experts do to read faster and retain more? In Little Guide To Your Well-Read Life: How To Get More Books In Your Life And More Life From Your Books, Steve Leveen writes about the truth about speed reading.

Speed Reading Then and Now
Leveen writes:

"In the Space Age '60's, speed reading was seen as a scientific way to train people to cope with the ever-increasing amount of information. Yet today, in our Information Age, you don't hear much about speed reading. You can still find Evelyn Wood training sessions, but they have withered from six-week courses to one-day seminars. What happened?"

Speed Just Isn't That Important
Leveen writes:

"It turns out that speed just isn't that important. It is no magic cure for information overload. You can increase your speed, even dramatically, but pure speed is only part -- and not the biggest part -- of reading well."

Don't Let Your Eyes Limit You
Leveen writes:

"By the time Mortimer Adler revised How to Read a Book in 1972, he had to respond to what he termed the 'fad' of speed-reading courses. He agreed that they are useful in letting your reading speed be limited by your mind and not your eyes. By simply using your fingers together as a pointer and disciplining yourself to read in this fashion, he wrote you can read twice or three times as fast. Speed reading, says Adler, can improve elementary comprehension -- that is, what a book says. But speed reading can't help you understand what a book means. That says Adler, is controlled by your thinking speed, not your reading speed. Go ahead and take a course, he allowed; it won't hurt you. But it won't help you much either."

What The Experts Say
Leveen writes:

"Speed reading is no more likely to make you a good reader than the ability to run quickly will make you a good tennis player. None of the professional readers I've interviewed - editors, writers, publishers, booksellers, book reviewers -- believed that a speed-reading course made any difference for them. In fact, a surprising number said they consider themselves slow readers (although this is obviously a self-assessment). Only two people I've interviewed, both attorneys, reported that they profited by a speed-reading course. They use their skills today mainly for reviewing lengthy legal documents."

The Far Away Look
Leveen writes:

"When you think about it, aren't some of the most important moments in reading, whether for pleasure or for learning, when you stop and gaze off with that faraway look? At these moments, your reading speed slows to zero, but your understanding soars. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, 'The best of a book is not the thought which it contains, but the thought which it suggests just as the charm of music dwells not in the tones but in the echoes of our hearts.'"

Key Take Aways
I read a lot of information every day, on the job and on my own time, whether it's books, blogs, email, sites or feeds. If there's a better way I'm always looking for it. Here's my key take aways:

  • Don't let your eyes limit you. I didn't realize how limiting your eyes could be if you don't train them. A while back, I bought a product called EyeQ: Read and Process Faster in Just 7 Minutes (Package Edition, and I took it for a test drive. It's purpose is to improve your reading speed by improving your eye speed. I was already a fast reader, but by using EyeQ, I became very aware of where and how my eyes slowed me down. I was surprised by how quickly the training exercises improved my reading speed. I love the fact the program shows you measurable improvement in your reading speed. It feels more like a video-game than training.
  • Focus on comprehension over speed. Assuming your eye speed isn't limiting you, the next gate is your mind. What's the point of racing through a bunch of material if you don't understand it?
  • Use focus and priority over speed. Carve out what's important. There will always be more information than you can possibly read. If this approach is good enough for the experts, then maybe this is actually the proven practice for more effective reading.
  • Be flexible in your pace. At work, I have to parse a lot of email to get down to the actual points that matter. I do that in books, blogs and sites too. I selectively slow down or speed up, based on purpose and scale. If I have a lot of email, but I'm time-boxing my results, I set a faster pace. If I'm researching a topic and I have to hack my way through the information jungle, I set a faster pace. If I'm reading for leisure, I soak it up all in good time, at whatever pace feels good.
  • Slow down for the good stuff. Slow down for the "ah-has" and fully absorb the impact. Savor the good stuff.