I’m not sure how relevant this question is to the broader audience, but since I wrote a response, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to get another mail bag published.
You read so much and tell us all that reading is the most important thing we should be doing. Seeing the books and your process in this post helped me understand it. I wanted to ask your thoughts on speed reading. Do you think it is worth it? Do you speed read yourself? How many words a minute can you read?
I want to know if this is worth investing my time and thought you might have some insight.
A “normal” reading speed is 200 to 300 words per minute. If you are below that, I would strongly encourage some sort of remedial corrective measures. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d worry about it. There are several online tests available; for a quick figure, you can test yourself here. Someone who practices speed reading would aim for 1,500 words per minute with at least 85% reading comprehension.
If I’m casually reading and it’s early morning, I just put my contacts in, and I have a cup of coffee in front of me, my reading speed is around 718 words per minute. If it’s the middle of the day, I’m focused and completely awake, my reading speed is somewhere between 900 and 1,000 words per minute. Anywhere above that and I can still get the gist but I’ll miss words and some specifics. (The only time my speed takes a significant hit is if non-standard dialects are used; e.g., in the few tests I did, if an author tries to imitate a dialect through improper spelling, I come screeching down to 400 words per minute as my brain tries to make sense of it. The worse the syntax, the harder it is for me to process.) To put that into perspective as a sort of relative gauge, at my speed, I could theoretically read the entire Bible in 12 to 16 hours, depending on how focused I was and whether I was reading a modern day translation or the King James version.
When I read for mastery, I don’t just plow through a book. I’m in the middle of one book now that details a story about Byzantine Emperor Michael III and his betrayal at the hands of Basilius. I’ve read, and re-read, the same three pages for five days. I stop, after every paragraph, and think about what happened, what caused it to happen, the mental models behind it, how it could have been avoided entirely, how one could have extricated himself from the position once he realized the danger but was close the point of no return, what would motivate a man like Basilius to destroy the very benefactor who had showed him so much love and kindness, the government checks that should be in place to prevent such an outcome in a well-designed political system, etc. Until I feel as if I have extracted every bit of wisdom I can from the passage, I won’t move on to the rest of the book.
[mainbodyad]This means that I sometimes spend months or longer going through a book. A couple of years ago, I showed you a picture of how exacting I am when it comes to reading and marking up texts. At the present moment, I’m in the middle of 18 to 20 books, each bookmarked with accompanying notes, which I’ll go through with the precision of a surgeon.
The reason I do this is the same reason a weight lifter doesn’t just try to get done with his sets. He’s interested in the process, in getting it right, because his goal is to get better not just be done. Finishing a book isn’t an accomplishment. Distilling a few, big, workable ideas, even from a terrible book, is.
There’s also the fact that I love the written word, so I tend to meander, and reveal, in well-constructed language. I mean, read the ending to All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy:
“He touched the horse with his heels and rode on. He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chattering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.”
Why would you want to blow by that like a man trying to catch a train? It’s madness. I’d probably sit and re-read that passage for five minutes. I can be there. I can smell the air. I can feel the wind; see the sky.
To be able to enjoy that is every real a luxury as a bottle of Sublime Vanille. To this day, I can still picture the houses, the fireplaces, the furniture, the clothing in my mind if you mention a particular Agatha Christie novel (I was obsessed with her stories in elementary school and at various points checked out every book and even movie adaptation of her works the public library had available).
I think it’s part of my personality. It’s the same reason I walk by this and have a near religious experience appreciating what it took to make it possible, while others don’t even seem to notice. I like the connections; the story; the interplay; the details. I like seeing the arc of history drawn over our lives, knowing how we got here and, in turn, how our actions today will influence the lives of people whom we will never meet.
So there’s a weird paradox in that, my reading speeds are probably in the top 1% based on the distribution of average reading speeds, yet I probably spend longer with a book than almost anyone else I know. There have been a few situations where my notes on a book are almost as long as the book itself. I want to get wiser, and books are simply a tool to help me expand my thinking, view information from a different perspective, or absorb knowledge. I think that is why I overwhelmingly prefer non-fiction; it’s so much more interesting and magical to me.
Don’t misunderstand me – I’m glad I read quickly, and I think it probably has a lot to do with my ability, combined with piano playing, to type 120 to 130 words per minute, which is an extremely useful skill that has saved me an enormous amount of time, so I’m not discounting it or anything. I just think that this emphasis on shoving content down your throat without stopping to reflect on it is a bit misguided. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time worrying about my speed, just that I was following the right process. To go back to the athlete metaphor, the fact that you are running a mile each day is more important than the fact you might be doing it more slowly than you’d like. Sure, work on it, but you’re still better off than you would have been.
In other words, it’s not how much you absorb, it’s how much you understand.
That’s why I believe in John Stuart Mill’s philosophy of reading even things you think are utterly foolish, as long as they are relevant to your field. As he said, you are “seeing that no scattered particles of important truth are buried and lost in the ruins of exploded error”. You are much improved even if only by realizing how much poor cognition is in the world.
So, definitely, increase your reading speed. It’s a great life skill. Just keep it in perspective and don’t forget what you are attempting to accomplish, confusing the process with the proceeds. Books are not something you mark off a checklist solely for the sake of getting them behind you. You should set out with a specific agenda and be purposeful in why you are spending part of your very limited time allotment.
Me? I will never speed read. It doesn’t fit with my temperament. I become friends with my books. I can tell you exactly where I was when I read a certain life changing passage. I can picture reading the 1973 version of The Intelligent Investor in the white rocking chairs at La Guardia airport when I flew home for Thanksgiving during college. I can see myself reading and analyzing Haydn’s Symphonic scores on the plane. I remember reading the American Eagle Outfitters annual reports in the computer lab. It’s the reason 10 or 15 years later, if I’m thinking about something and I realize I’ve encountered it before, I can often go into the thousands of books in my library, make my way to a shelf, and know exactly where to look.