Reading, fast and slow

We live in a world of scarce understanding and abundant information.

Let’s look past the benefits of reading. Things like higher IQ, less stress, more empathy, better sleep – the list goes on.

If you’re not already dedicating a few hours a day to reading, it’s time to get with the program.

But let’s not talk about those wonderful things that reading does for us – let’s look at how we read, and why it matters.

Speed vs substance

In the age of audiobooks and e-readers, it’s quite easy to amass a very big reading list. Friends and bloggers are constantly reading and suggesting tons of new books, each presenting an opportunity to learn and grow.

While I like the concept of stocking a virtual library, there’s no doubt that with this digital accumulation comes a strong sense of FOMO: am I missing out? Should I read this book or that? Am I prioritizing the right kind of books?

All these questions add a level of anxiety to reading that takes away the fun and enjoyment of sinking totally into a book and letting it affect the way I think on a deep level.

This is a BIG deal; reading a particular book out of FOMO clouds the mind and gets in the way of what’s important – learning and understanding the content of the book. The intent behind reading a particular book should not be fear of loss, but curiosity and genuine interest.

It seems that, in recent years, one strategy to circumvent this anxiety to simply read more books. How do you read more books? By reading faster, of course.

As the benefits of reading become apparent, reading fast seems like the obvious approach to gaining more benefits – right?

We see this everywhere. A few examples:

  • Tim Ferriss had his start teaching speed reading classes at Princeton. He later sold a supplement company, Brain Quicken.[2][3]
  • Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (the two richest dudes alive), when asked what one superpower they would want to have, both replied, “reading faster.”
  • Internet entrepreneur Tai Lopez has the second largest book club after Oprah, and claims to read one book every day.
  • Business blogger Taylor Pearson outlines his approach to fast reading, saying that it comes naturally: “books have made a tremendous impact on my life and I love the experience of reading.”

It would appear that, for the novice reader, reading faster is an effective strategy for getting more success. I’m not so sure.

Let’s separate, for a moment, the ideas of reading something and understanding something, the latter being the true value of a book. After all, staring at a wall of text is a waste of my time and energy.

In his article, In Praise of SlownessShane Parrish forces us to look our how we approach learning:

We live in a world of scarce understanding and abundant information. We complain that we never have any free time yet we seek distraction. If work can’t distract us, we distract ourselves. We crave perpetual stimulation and motion. We’re so busy that our free time comes in 20 second bursts, just long enough for us to read the gist and assume we understand. If we are to synthesize learning and understanding we need time to think.

In the effort to speed things up, we actually hurt ourselves – information without understanding leads to poorer decision making. Could it be that speed reading does more harm than good; does it create more distraction and less focus?

I think, perhaps, that the practice of reading is just the latest tool to be abused in the relentless quest of achievement and productivity optimization.

Mindfulness meditation, the benefits of which are also amazing and many, is being adopted by big businesses like Google in an effort to help employees deal with the stress of long working hours. But their intentions may be misguided.

Thich Nhat Hanh – the Vietnamese monk instrumental in bringing Zen Buddhism teachings to Western culture – recently commented on the new practice of “business mindfulness”:

If you consider mindfulness as a means of having a lot of money, then you have not touched its true purpose. It may look like the practice of mindfulness but inside there’s no peace, no joy, no happiness produced. It’s just an imitation. If you don’t feel the energy of brotherhood, of sisterhood, radiating from your work, that is not mindfulness.[4]

Reading, it would seem, is falling into the same trap of intent-to-gain. When meditation is used as a means of personal gain, it’s actually detrimental to our personal growth and consciousness quality. Similarly, reading fast is actually reading very slowly.

I won’t decry anyone’s desire to read more – I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor – but the intent should be understanding and learning new ideas, not unconsciously shoving information into our brain without taking time to think and reflect on that information. I personally will relish reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading a passage as many times as it takes to truly understand it.

Likewise, I will hit the pause button on books where appropriate. Two recent examples of this: Ray Dalio’s Principles and Tony Robbins’ Personal Power, both of which tout the benefits of isolated goal setting (setting goals without any plan or idea of how to achieve them).

To truly understand what each of these books intended to convey, I immediately put them down and turned my attention to writing goals, without thinking ahead of why or how. In doing so, I actually put to use what the books were saying, and connected my own experience with the text.

Had I continued reading, I would’ve blatantly ignored the very message that was in front of me.

In reading, as in mediation, the important thing to remember is that going slowly is actually going faster in the long run. By taking our time to truly enjoy, understand, appreciate, and internalize the content of a book or essay, we actually learn the material.

I have a long reading list for the rest of the year, and it grows longer every day. And while I’d like to reach “Reading List Zero”, I’m not in a hurry. I’ve chosen books that I’m passionately curious about, and I plan to savor the process of reading each and every one, no matter how long it takes.