One month of speed reading

It’s been a month since I learned about speed reading, from reading Niklas Johanssons weblog (in Swedish). As I wrote then (see herehere – and here), I had heard of speed reading, but dismissed it since I felt it didn’t appeal to me. As for fiction, I wanted to enjoy the language of the writer; and with non-fiction, I thought that my reading-style was the best for me, in order to understand the material – I often had to go back and re-read things I felt I hadn’t understand the first time, and I dwelled on passages, trying to understand.

I haven’t tried speed reading fiction, so I can’t share any experiences there, but I have read several non-fiction books since then. When I read Niklas’ post, though, I was reading fiction: The Book of Mirdad by Mikhail Naimy; a very poetic book and although I tried speed reading on the last few pages, it didn’t work that well – probably because it was hard to see where the text was going; my feeling is that the “structure” of the book must be very clear.

Then I got a bunch of books I had ordered as presents to friends, of which I had read only one, and the rest were all books that I was interested in. So I tried an approach where I first studied the TOC, then leafed through the entire book to get a sense of its structure. The book Influence, by Robert Cialdini, had a summary at the end of each chapter; so I speed read them all – after which I understood its essence and knew of passages in the book that I wanted to read. This was all in spare moments during one or two days, but I read enough to generate three weblog posts (see herehere – and here).

As for Albert-László Barabási’s Linked: The New Science of Networks, it didn’t have chapter summaries; but I tried the same approach of reading the TOC, and then speed read the first and last paragraph of each chapter. This worked as well as it did for Influence, to my surprise. It might not work as well for all non-fiction books, but in this book, the first paragraph was an introduction to the chapter, and the last was a link to the next chapter, so I guess that’s roughly the same. (There’s one post from my reading this book.)

Then I re-read Your Competent Child by Jesper Juul (which resulted in six posts: hereherehereherehere – and here). This was difficult, since I found it hard to understand its form or structure. Studying the TOC and leafing through the entire book didn’t tell me that much. At least for me, it seems to be important that the structure is clear for speed reading to work. I did read it quicker than I would otherwise have, but it was more similar to my old reading style, in that there was much friction.

The friction was almost gone as I read Cracking Creativity by Michael Michalko; its structure is very clear and it’s very well-edited. I followed his lines of reasoning with ease, and often I felt I could increase the speed since I had gotten his point early in a paragraph. I quickly got a sense for how the book was organized, and there was a short summary of the entire book in its introduction. Besides being a very interesting book, this one is also great for practicing speed reading. Reading this book resulted in seven posts (see herehereherehereherehere – and here) and an entire new weblog: The Sweden Weblog.

And now I’m reading Win Wenger’s and Richard Poe’s The Einstein Factor. In spare moments the last two days, I have read more than half of it. Again, there are no chapter summaries, but the TOC and the first paragraph took me far in understanding its form and essence.

Like I said, I wasn’t interested in speed reading, but as I read Niklas post, where he wrote that it basically is about reading in pace with your brain, I got interested. It made sense to me that the friction I observed as I was reading would come from my brain getting bored with the low throughput of information. I quickly picked up the technique (although I need to practice more) and it felt right from the start.

Besides the initial studying of a book’s structure, the technique I use is to run my finger quickly under each line of text, while relaxing my eyes (or “focusing softly,” as Niklas calls it); the eyes follow the finger and the mind registers the words. I guess it’s important that you move your finger slightly faster than your eyes can keep up with, but sometimes I go too fast and have to go back. However, I try to keep a steady pace to minimize the number of such interruptions (since they disturb the flow). Also, I had to stop reading aloud in my head, but that was pretty much it.

As I started to get used to using this technique, I felt as if I had gotten access to vast amounts of information that I simply had no chance of reading before (because of limited time). I might pick up the book Speed Reading by Tony Buzan, which Niklas warmly recommends, but for now I’m quite satisfied with my results, and there are other topics I want to read about now.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on December 13, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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