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Our Reading Lives

The Speed Reading vs. Slow Reading Showdown: One Reader’s Adventure

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There are few things I enjoy more than savoring a good, well-written book. After taking in a particularly beautiful sentence or spending some quality time with a complex character, I love to pause and let what I just read warm my insides like a cup of fresh tea on a wintery day. This is what makes an incurable bookworm like myself the happiest. On the other hand, the thing that makes me the most sad? Knowing that there will never be enough time in my lifetime to discover all the books I might fall in love with, let alone, read them.

Most of the time, rather than dwelling on this bookish conundrum, I just accept the paradox. But recently, I was presented with an interesting idea: speed reading. Although the concept has been around for a while, if you search for it on Google, you’ll find plenty of recently published articles, seminars, and videos about how speed reading can help you read more of the thousands of books published each year in addition to all of the content that pops up on our devices every day. 

So, could speed reading be a valid solution to my “so many books, so little time” quandary? While my instincts tended to agree with the criticism around speed reading’s lofty promises, I figured I had nothing to lose. So, I decided to read an entire book, alternating between reading at my regular speed, speed reading, and deliberate slow reading, which, interestingly, has also been a popular topic online. I was going to read anyway — why not see if there was a better way to do it?

The Method

After doing a little research on both speed reading and slow reading techniques, I decided on some of the parameters of my experiment:

Book Selection

Since speed reading proponents promise that their techniques help readers absorb vital information quickly, I wanted to choose a book that would offer plenty of new information. At the same time, I wanted to choose an author with an engaging and well-crafted writing style that I enjoy in order to make the most of the reflective quality of slow reading.

The winning book? Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell, a nonfiction book I hadn’t previously read, but written by an author whose work I’ve previously enjoyed.

Speed Reading Techniques

To save time:

  • Avoid speaking the words in my head as I’m reading.
  • Read each line using the “third word rule”: Read only what’s between the third word into the line and the third word before the end of the line. Let my peripheral vision take in the rest. 
  • Fight the urge to go back and reread.
  • Don’t stop to look up words I don’t know.

To stay focused:

  • Track the words with my finger or a straight edge to prevent my eyes from wandering around the page.

Slow Reading Techniques

To fully absorb and appreciate the content:

  • Read some passages out loud
  • Jot down my thoughts in the margins
  • Take forced breaks to digest, appreciate the writing, or visualize a scene
  • Let the ideas I read take me on thought tangents
  • Allow myself to google more information about the people or about the incidents in the book

Comparison Technique

I decided to alternate reading pace with each chapter (13 chapters total including the introduction) in this order: regular pace, speed reading pace, slow reading pace. As much as possible, I tried to read a set of all three paces in one sitting.

speed reading tools: book, straight edge, pen, tea
THE EQUIPMENT: the book, a straight-edge/folded blank paper for speed reading, a pen for slow reading, and a cup of tea for every speed of reading.

The Journey

As I began the book’s introduction at my regular reading pace, I was immediately invested. Gladwell promised to make me think more deeply about the strategies we use to translate the words and intentions of people we don’t know — and how that affects our lives and the world. Plus, he would be writing about how these strategies played roles in many well-known incidents such as the death of Sandra Bland, the Bernie Madoff scandal, the trial of Amanda Knox, and Sylvia Plath’s death by suicide. I was ready to dive in.

First up: speed reading. I spent much of my first speed chapter trying to figure out which techniques were and weren’t going to work for me. I quickly realized that tracking words with my finger did nothing to help my eyes stop wandering around the page, but that a straight edge did. Still, I was tense — distracted not only by fighting my natural urges to go back and reread sentences to clarify what I’d just read, but also by my perfectionism: Am I doing this right? Did I accidentally speak that word aloud in my head? Was that the third or fourth word in? Wait, what did I just miss while I was thinking that? It was this kind of perfectionism that made me drop the “third word rule” after about a page of reading. 

At the end of my speed reading chapter, I exhaled in relief. I wasn’t exhausted by how much information I’d taken in, but by my own diligence to do everything exactly right. True, I felt like I’d gotten the gist of the content — especially since I’d quickly picked up on Gladwell’s tendency to sum up and clarify an idea after he’d explored it. This helped me relax, knowing that if I missed it the first time, I’d get the chance to read it again. Still, I decided to give myself a break and not get so hung up on doing everything perfectly the next time.

Slow reading the next chapter felt luxurious. As a result, I probably slowed down even more than I would have if I hadn’t just sped through the previous chapter. I read every footnote. I stopped to do an interactive activity, which was serendipitously placed in this particular chapter. I read aloud sometimes and paused after every vignette to appreciate the story and visualize the scene. I looked up Neville Chamberlain’s photograph along with the photos of every other historical figure in that chapter. I googled “guayabera” and scrolled through several images of different colors and styles because someone in one of his vignettes was wearing one. I was relishing every moment.

But then, something strange happened. The part of my personality that’s addicted to high achieving and productivity started kicking in and I began to be very aware of how long it was taking me to get through a chapter. Although I was reading a print book, I found myself wondering what my Kindle would tell me about percentage read and time left if it were an ebook. The biggest shock of all was when this thought formed in my head: If I were speed reading, I’d be done with this chapter by now. It seemed my personality was now distracting me from slow reading much the way it did when I was speed reading.

Once again, I was relieved to finish a chapter and switch to a different pace. It was during this chapter that I noticed something interesting about my regular reading: I was subconsciously incorporating speed reading and slow reading techniques, not because I’d just learned about them, but because that was just how I naturally read. I instinctively skim certain passages — like lengthy lists of specific examples that are illustrating the same thing. I let my own curiosity guide me when it comes to pausing and reflecting, which feels much more organic than forcing myself to do it at regular intervals.

As I continued alternating reading paces through the rest of the book, I noticed a few other things:

  • It was easier to get the gist of the content in speed chapters when it was about incidents with which I already had some familiarity, such as Amanda Knox’s trial. On the other hand, when I had to speed read through the chapter on Sylvia Plath’s life, while I didn’t mind skimming the painful details of her actual suicide, I knew I was going to go back to reread the excerpts of her poetry that Gladwell included as well as reflect on this idea: “Something about writing poetry appears either to attract the wounded or to open new wounds.”
  • Content also affected my slow reading techniques. It felt uncomfortable to force myself to spend more time with the disturbing details about the abuse accusations toward Jerry Sandusky as well as those surrounding Brock Turner’s trial. At the same time, I was glad to have more time to think about Gladwell’s insights on those same events.
  • I began to suspect there wasn’t much difference between my regular reading pace and my slow reading pace, with the exception of my first slow-reading chapter, which was slower in reaction to my jarring, first-time speed-reading experience. So, after speed reading a 19-page chapter in 13 minutes, I decided to time the same number of pages for slow and regular paces. As I suspected, for 19 pages, there was only a two-minute difference between my slow reading (27 minutes) and my regular reading (25 minutes).

The Conclusion

It turns out speed reading is not going to solve my reading FOMO. I love savoring sentences, stories, and characters too much. And deliberate slow reading won’t help enhance my experience much more either. In both cases, my perfectionism prevents me from enjoying reading in any way other than what comes to me naturally. I would say that it might depend on the topic and writing style, but because these days, I generally only read books that I enjoy, it doesn’t really matter. 

I’m glad I gave speed reading and deliberate slow reading a try, but I feel no need to do it again any time soon. I’m happy to embrace the same kind of nuanced and complicated emotion I love to read about: the unresolvable tension between the euphoria of “so many books” and the heartbreak of “so little time.”