How to read fast

by on December 12, 2006 at 6:48 am in Books | Permalink

I am unfamiliar with speed reading techniques, so I cannot evaluate them.

The best way to read quickly is to read lots.  And lots.  And to have started a long time ago.  Then maybe you know what is coming in the current book.  Reading quickly is often, in a margin-relevant way, close to not reading much at all. 

Note that when you add up the time costs of reading lots, quick readers don’t consume information as efficiently as you might think.  They’ve chosen a path with high upfront costs and low marginal costs.  "It took me 44 years to read this book" is not a bad answer to many questions about reading speed.

Another way to read quickly is to cut bait on the losers.  I start ten or so books for every one I finish.  I don’t mind disliking a book, and I never regret having picked it up and started it.  I am ruthless in my discards.

Fairfax and Arlington counties have wonderful public library systems, and I go about five times a week to one branch or another.  Usually I scan the New Books shelf and look at nothing else.  I can go shopping at the best store in the world, almost any day, for free. 

I am both interested and compulsive.  How can I let that book go unread or at least unsampled?  I can’t.

Virtually every Tuesday I visit the New Books table at Borders.  Tuesday is when most new books arrive.  Who knows what might be there?  How can I let that New Books table go unvisited?  I can’t.  About half the time I buy something, but I always walk away happy.

Here is another reading tip: do less of other activities.

Blogging hasn’t hurt my writing, it has helped by non-fiction reading, but I read fewer novels.  That is the biggest intellectual opportunity cost of MR, though for the last month I’ve made a concerted effort to read more fiction.  But it is not like the old days when I would set aside two months to work through The Inferno, Aeneid, and the like, with multiple secondary sources and multiple translations at hand.  I no longer have the time or the mood, and I miss this.

Here are two earlier posts on time management.

Addendum: Jane Galt comments.  And here is Daniel Akst.

1 Midas Oracle December 12, 2006 at 7:01 am

Professor Tyler Cowen,

Please, do put your most important sentence(s) in bold. Thanks.

How Users Read on the Web – (They don’t.) – by Jakob Nielsen – 1997-10-01

2 eric burroughs December 12, 2006 at 8:13 am

how did that happen?! looking at the last book list you had the other day, i was wondering how you read so much. cutting bait is very good advice. i tend to slog through too much. but i still don’t read as much as i should these days, the culprits being a partner who loves TV and my response being midless ramblings online. which happily include MR. but not excuse. and in fact, it did take me 2 years to first read “absolom, absolom”. and it’s still one of the best i’ve ever read.

3 jp December 12, 2006 at 9:16 am

Most “speed reading” techniques seem to be not about reading quickly but about sucking the content out of written material with the least amount of effort. Whether you want to “speed read” or not depends on whether your primary goal is reading per se or gathering information. A lot of current academic work (which I have to read as part of my job) really is “unreadable” in the sense that I might “read” a novel, say, or a Victorian essay. With academic work, as a matter of self-defense, you have to develop a method for getting the info without actually reading much. I.e., what is the argument? What is the evidence? Is the evidence good? Does it support the argument?

4 NewsToTom December 12, 2006 at 11:15 am

Here is another reading tip: do less of other activities.

In my experience, this is the key one. I find I get a lot less reading, particularly non-fiction, done while watching 10-25 hours of football a week, as opposed to the <5 hours of TV I watch a week in the football offseason. I know, I know, quite shocking.

5 Aaron December 12, 2006 at 1:18 pm

I second Tyler’s suggestion of cutting bait on books that are less than thrilling.

I usually read non-fiction. If the first three chapters don’t fascinate me, I stop reading (after perhaps skimming the final chapter).

Further more, I skip a few pages when I find the author explaining something with which I’m familiar.

IMHO, we should adapt for book reading similar habits of skimming and skipping the we use for web browsing.

6 Jesse December 12, 2006 at 7:12 pm

Do you understand all you read? Do you remember it?

7 Amit Patel December 13, 2006 at 12:44 am

I find that if I buy a book or if it is a gift, I feel compelled to read it. If I borrow a book (especially from the library), I am happy to stop reading it if I don’t like it.

When I record a TV show on TiVo, I feel compelled to watch. When I’m flipping channels, I’m happy to stop watching a show.

Is this the endowment effect?

8 Justin December 14, 2006 at 1:54 pm

I am relieved to see another avid reader who abandons books partway through. But even buying used books from amazon, I think my wife would kill me if I culled 9 out of 10 books!

My strategy is that when I am interested in a subject I do amazon searches and read what the reviewers have to say. Every reviewer, even for books with 500 reviews. Then I check out all the books that reviewers recommend. I also check out the listmanias and the other books that good reviewers have reviewed. Then I compile a list of the ten or so best books on a subject and order them all used. Some of them inevitably dissapoint, but I like about half of them.

9 Roy February 25, 2007 at 11:17 am

Yeah I have the same strategy for choice as Justin and recently I’ve been using for suggestions; very useful, I mostly Read non-fiction books, but I’ll drop in a good fiction now and then.
However my question for you is: Don’t you feel Like wanting to keep certain ideas from a book somewhere handy and quickly reachable ? I don’t have a Laptop Yet, But I guess when I’ll have one I’ll be doing a quick summary of each Idea I find interesting in a book, to be able to come back quickly to it. Anyone does that?

10 John Wesley March 8, 2007 at 11:25 am

I’m the same with discarding. If it doesn’t grab me within the first 20 pages I put it down for good. I’m into old books though, rather than new. I rarely read anything that was written within the last 50 years. Maybe I’ll join this age some day, but for the time being I haven’t had my fill of the classics. Besides, I get my contemporary fix from the internet.

11 mouhcin June 26, 2007 at 11:53 am

to read fast you have to answer to the question why to read fast? if you dont have a good ansew you will never read faster,

12 Bonifac August 24, 2008 at 9:27 am

This is a page when you can test your speeding not in wpm, but in char/sec. Then you can check, how long will it take you to learn novels/books. You can suggest books or novels, and the admin will put it on the list, if there is a digital version of the book. I think it is very usefull. I used the hungarian version and I read the books for the same time what the program said.

13 Anonymous September 18, 2008 at 2:52 am

Thanks for that web

14 Steven Smith June 8, 2009 at 7:46 am

cool article………..

15 Paul Idara August 20, 2009 at 7:44 am

Hi my name is Paul,
Pls I would like to know what can make me read incredibly fast.

16 llolo January 6, 2011 at 8:08 pm


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