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21 Apr

Speedreading doesn’t work.

It all started in 1958, with an unknown book titled Reading Skills.

The authors of this book made some audacious claims regarding the activity of reading. They claimed that the reading techniques that people follow naturally were highly inefficient and that eliminating a lot of the visual and perceptual blunders could greatly increase the speed of reading, without compromising comprehension.

For starters, this is a load of bovine excrement, the likes of which have infected millions of young, impressionable minds. A lot of this stems from seeing reading as a form of ‘consumption’, i.e. you vacuum information from a text and store it in some kind of a cerebral knowledge store, which will then be magically retrieved and used in a context that is best suited for it.

Metaphors like these, while useful, are far too simplistic in their description of how the human mind works. I would go as far as saying that employing industrial terms to describe the human body is a special kind of debasement that we need to collectively grow out of.

Speed–reading is one of modernity's most enduring silver bullets. In addition to all the damage it has already done, it has been wreaking havoc by convincing a new generation of knowledge workers that they can somehow get away without 'doing the thing'.

Indulge me for a while as I tell you why reading is best done slowly, methodically, and with extreme attention to detail.

Reading for Kicks

By several estimates, formal and otherwise, reading is a habit that is now in global decline. Individuals seem to have largely resigned to the fact that attention spans are shrinking. This has had a pronounced effect on writing, especially in the realm of the internet. Digitally native writers have practically invented new forms of writing where long, complex, ornate paragraphs are eschewed in favor of shorter, pseudo–zen, haiku–like paragraphs.

Heck, we’re guilty of doing that ourselves here at Stoa.

In recent times, reading, especially in a lingua franca (like English) is an activity whose impact is being looked at through a narrow lens. If a piece of text doesn't deliver the most amount of information in the least amount of time, it is relegated to the sidelines. Any text that is sufficiently dense, or prolix barely gets any eyeballs as the modern reader is 'too busy' to be engrossed in deciphering anything that is even remotely beyond their comfort levels.

It also doesn't help that the usage of slightly advanced vocabulary and ornate prose is taken to be the reserve of the pompous and overeducated elite.

Achieving prominence online meant that digitally native writers had to aggressively cut down on paragraph lengths and co–opt a conversational style. This is meant to mimic a dialogue, or in some cases, a monologue that can be paused and resumed at any time (you can stop reading whenever you want!).

That is the key lesson: approaching reading as a conversation with the author, as opposed to a passive activity where there is little to no engagement with the text.

Fencing with Ideas

Among many of the quotes that are associated with René Descartes, the following is one that profoundly changed the way I looked at reading:

“Reading good books is like engaging in conversation with the most cultivated minds of past centuries who had composed them, or rather, taking part in a well–conducted dialogue in which such minds reveal to us only the best of their thoughts.”

Bear in mind that this was written nearly 400 years ago.

I am positive that those among you with a sapiosexual bent of mind can distinctly recall conversations where you were repeatedly challenged and forced to plumb deeper into your mind to fully flesh out your ideas. This is what effective reading also looks like.

Fundamentally, reading is a means of interfacing with one of the most enduring technologies of the human race: writing. These days, we tend to take literacy for granted but writing as a means of expression featured fairly late in the evolution of the human race. Scholars believe that it has only been around for the last 6,000 years. This is nothing but a jiffy in the geological time scale.

Writing, by its very nature, restructures thought and allows the reader to employ a kind of thinking and reasoning that is largely alien to oral cultures. It’s a vastly superior means of information dissemination in society. For the longest time, it was the closest thing that humanity had to a Time Machine, as there was no other way to experience the moods and idiosyncrasies of times, places, and peoples past.

Keeping this in mind, reading any sufficiently complex piece of text requires constant pausing and thinking. I like to see it as an intellectual equivalent of fencing, where you attack, feint, flange, and parry the author's ideas in rapid succession. If done well, it might even feel like a beautifully choreographed waltz.

If that is too intimidating for you, reading the natural way, i.e. at a steady pace with plenty of subvocalization (producing a voice in your head as you read), even in the absence of complete comprehension gives you an implicit understanding of the structure of the language in which you read.
If you ask any of your non–native English-speaking friends about how they managed to get so good at the language, almost all of them will point to how they picked up a reading habit fairly early in their lives.

Beware blind ‘Ferrisization’

If you’re young and have often wondered how to escape the rat race, I’m certain you’ve come across Tim Ferris and his infamous ‘4–hour’ approach to just about everything. Now there’s plenty to learn from Tim, but learning to speed–read is not one of them.

The acolytes of the church of speed–reading talk extensively of the biomechanical nature of the eye and frequently use scientific jargon such as ‘saccades’ and ‘fixations’ to convince you that reading is a purely mechanical process that can be hacked. More often than not, these techniques negate key aspects of the reading skill itself (like comprehension and critical thinking, for instance).

If you have managed to read this far and are sufficiently convinced that speed–reading is just another variant of snake oil, you might be wondering what you can even do about your reading habit. My answer to you would be the same that every other advocate of reading would tell you, i.e. read as much as possible, and keep reading new stuff. Novelty not merely in terms of topics, but also in terms of style and vocabulary.

The more you read, the more implicitly you understand the structure of language. The greater your understanding of the structure of language, the better your grasp of the machinery that underlies human communication.

Mark Seidenberg, a renowned psychologist with extensive experience in the history of Psycholinguistics had this to say about speed–reading:

“Reading expands one’s knowledge of the language and the world in ways that increase reading skill, making it easier and more enjoyable to read. Increases in reading skills make it easier to consume the texts that feed this learning machinery. It is not the eyes but what we know about language, print, and the world — knowledge that is easy to increase by reading — that determines reading skill. Where this expertise leads, the eyes will follow.”

That’s a scientist’s conclusion about the nature of reading. For the more artistically inclined among you, you might benefit from the advice given by Gustave Flaubert, one of the inventors of literary realism (read Madame Bovary if you get the chance):

“Do not read as children read, to amuse yourself, nor as ambitious people read, to get instruction. No! read to live; make an intellectual atmosphere for your soul, which shall be composed of the emanation of all great minds.”

Read for the sake of reading, and you’ll find that clearer thinking, better writing, and more eloquent speaking will eventually come about as a by–product.

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