Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Ask HN: How to read faster
33 points by aliencat on Sept 20, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments
I've always been bothered by reading. I love reading, but I'm never proud of how much book I've read.

One problem is with reading speed. If average reading speed is 250wpm, then a average book of 200,000 words would take more than 10 hours, and you have to take into account the opportunity cost and the time for breaks between concentrations, and if the book is less interesting but is mandatory for you OR it requires more careful reading(i.e. College textbook), it would take more time.

Another problem is with how much you can remember after a while. I have a pretty bad memory, I often forget almost all of the stuff I read from a book as time goes. Which means that it's a waste of time to even read it. This year I'm trying to take notes and write summary after I read a book. But that doesn't help you to read faster.

How to read more? Can I increase my reading speed somehow? Or is there better ways to grasp the idea of the book faster? Is there a way to train your reading speed?

To retain more, read slower.

Stop after every paragraph. Consider - do you agree with the author? Do you have past experiences that support or challenge his claims? What can this be used for? What else is interesting about it?

When reading a novel, try to identify clever things the author did here. If relevant, try to guess what the solution will be to the mystery.

When reading a math, physics or programming textbook (or paper), stop every time the author is about to present a new tool or solution. Spend a few minutes trying to solve it yourself before reading his solution.

Do all the exercises.

You'll consume less books per month, but will come out knowing much more (in total) than if you just ran through them.

A few years ago, I did an experiment where every time I read something online I had to post some thoughts about it. I read much less, and gained much more from every bit I did read. I especially like how the comic strips came out - I gained a lot of new appreciation for the relation between art and story:


I did something similar for about two weeks, where I'd choose an article every day and write my own notes about it: http://kovach.me/notes.html

They were all about a single topic though, and I skim through several articles a day now on various topics. I might start doing this again; I _did_ learn a lot from transcribing notes and I think it could work with a variety of topics.


I also did little blogging experiments like that when I was in graduate school, with physics textbooks! Sadly, I didn't get far because Jackson was so, so far beyond anything I'd seen up to that point -- it was all I could do to keep up with the weekly 2-3 problem assignments, much less read and understand all the reading. But Jackson is a special case. :)

I would also add progressive-time experiments to this list. If you're reading something important, that you want to retain, ask yourself one day, one week, and one month later what you remember from it. Come up with ways to apply what you read: in writing, in conversation, etc.

Slow reading and writing on it does sounds like a great way to retain knowledge, but it's hard to find a book that actually worth slow reading. What's your way of deciding if a book is worth reading?

I read fiction based on recommendations or liking other works by the author, but more importantly, based on hearing people saying interesting things about the work. A good recent example is this gwern article, that finally convinced me that I must watch Neon Genesis Evangelion:


I read nonfiction in a project-learning approach - if I need Partial Differential Equations for a game I'm writing, I'll read an article or book about PDEs. I sometimes read a nonfiction book simply because I love the author or topic (Feynman's Lectures, Hamming's The Art Of Doing Science And Engineering), but it usually doesn't work as well (project-based is awesome because you always have "how can I use this in practice?" in the back of your head, leading you to process the material in interesting ways.

Skimming also helps.

The most fun I've had studying a book was Steven Smith's DSP book, at http://www.dspguide.com/ (I recommend that you learn how to make music with synthesizers before you start reading.)

My online reading diet is more of the fast-food-and-candy type, which is something I really should solve.

Check out "How to read a book" by Mortimer Adler. A great process on reading to understand more. Even has a section about reading speeds too, as well as ideas on choosing a book.

I'm not the OP, but if you slow read you will quickly find out whether the books is worthwhile or not. I don't think finding books is that hard, especially novels. For technical knowledge, I regularly read reference books and literature surveys, so I know what's in the book before hand and I know the quality. Keeping track of authors is hard in the beginning, but keeping track of publishers is easier and yields relatively the same results. That's why they charge so much...

Maybe this doesn't answer your question, but I've always believed reading a book is not a race. In my experience, taking my time to understand, or re-reading, something has always helped me retaining knowledge.

I think trying to find ways to retain what you've read versus how fast you've read something will be more beneficial in the long run. In addition, by become better a reader and retaining what you've read, I believe your speed will increase naturally.

My issue was staying focused on what I've read without wandering off somewhere else in my brain. With patience and a little devotion, I was able to overcome that and find the true joy in reading.

I agree that retaining information is most important. I often suffer from forgetting everything I read. Do you have any tips on how to remember what you read?

As weird as it may seem, I just Googled something like "how to get better at reading". And I found some tips, one of this biggest take-aways for me was to re-read something if you find yourself wandering, and make sure you really understand what you're reading. There have been times I've read several pages, or hell even a chapter, and looked back and realized I was zoned out. The important thing is to recognize this and go back, eventually the focus will come naturally.

I use a Kindle to read and one of my favorite features is the ability to look up a word I don't know. I make sure to do this every time I come across a word I don't know or don't understand given the context. If you don't have this ability, use a dictionary or something of the like.

Also a good tip was reading out loud, or mouthing the words while you read. Hope this helps!

You are reading but you are not concentrating. You brain is going at a much faster rate than your reading speed, which also contributes to the problem. I suffer the same problem.

You're on the right track because you realize that comprehending and retention are most important. It's not really SPEED READING, that you're after but SPEED COMPREHENSION.

To comprehend faster, concentrate on imagining and visualizing the ideas you are reading. This will keep your mind more focused on the ideas rather than simply the sound of words.

And let the speed increase on it's own. You can't push your speed, but it will automatically increase when you are reading more efficiently.

See "Reading with the Right Brain" on Amazon for a fuller explanation of how to read faster and more effectively.

I forget which speed reading book it was, but it helped me read a lot faster. Here's some of the key points I remember:

- Broaden your focus. You don't read each letter individually, you recognize the word as a whole. Likewise, you can, with practice, train yourself to focus on more words at a time. Try looking at one word and reading the words on either side, then practice reading half a line of a book at a time, then 1 line at a time. Think of your eyes as sponges soaking up a group of words at a time.

- Don't vocalize the words. If you have trouble with this, read so slowly that your brain gives up reading words "aloud" in your head.

- Focus on the chapter titles, first / last paragraphs, and any key info (e.g. bold sentences). Read those parts several times and really focus on them. This is where most of the important information lies. You will likely forget the rest of the chapter no matter how fast/slow you read it.

- Don't worry if you miss some parts from reading too quickly. Don't go back to re-read anything. Getting the general theme is more important that every single sentence.

- Retention is actually higher if you read faster, because your brain can put the big picture together faster. If you don't believe that, try reading a book 1 sentence a day.

As for memorizing things for school, look into Memory Palaces, Person-Action-Object, and Mnemonics. Visualizing things helps. Associate things you want to memorize with the absurd and unusual to make it stick out. It also helps to have a dirty mind when making associations. Our brains are wired to prioritize sex, so sexual scenarios are more memorable.

> - Don't vocalize the words. If you have trouble with this, read so slowly that your brain gives up reading words "aloud" in your head.

This is the part of every speed reading tutorial, book, whatever, that I simply don't get.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say "this", but here's my interpretation of what you mean. Feel free to clarify/reply; I check thread replies on HN every couple days, hopefully others chime in too.

The most popular methods to teach language put an incredibly strong emphasis on the link between visual glyphs and the sounds they're associated with. This technique seems highly practical on the surface because it aligns reading and talking, so effort in one area leads to reward in the other.

This system isn't perfect (or IMO acceptable/sane), though, because by design, it doesn't teach/provide an "off-switch" for when you want to do one without the other; rather, it conveys the opposite idea that one always implies the other. So either you intuitively figure out the nuances of where and how to differentiate visual and audial yourself, or you end up learning there are kids in the classroom who who can't read silently because they "don't get" (read: weren't taught) how to do that.

And then we crash into the whole maximum reading thing speed a few years later, which is so subtle and innate that most people don't even realize they have the issue at all. Just like with silently reading, a lucky few retain enough intuition to keep the visual and audial side of things completely separate in spite of how they were (mis)taught: one of my friends has the ability to look at (ie, read) his entire laptop screen as a single whole. (Of course I've signed up for lessons :P but it remains to be seen whether I can learn... that.)

But that's what speedreading is: reading purely visually, not with the clunky, time-based words->sounds->comprehension thing.

Quite possibly, as you read this, you're hearing it in your speaking voice or a mental voice. Not only is that capability innately time-based, rendering accent, tone and pause use mental resources.

With effort, you can consistently turn this off. It's just really really hard to learn to, 1) because we've been doing it all our lives and 2) because it was ingrained so early.

I understand that comprehension speed can go through the roof once this is done, because using the visual parts of the brain to process reading directly - ie, skipping glyphs->sounds->comprehension and going straight to glyphs->comprehension - is basically the way to do it. Sadly, only very few people to this.

The read-slow technique is a new one to me, but it seems to work, sort of. A better method I've also read about is to bog-down the sound processing parts of the brain with an activity that completely occupies all sound processing: repeating a sequence of letters over and over, like "A B C A B C A B C A B C ..." while you read. The visual and audial parts of the brain both ultimately do reach the comprehension parts, but the audial parts have the most connections. Bogging down audial processing with a task like the one above means you fall back on the visual->comprehension connections... which is what you want.

Rebalancing everything so comprehension is predominantly visual... yeah, that would definitely the subject of some efficiency research, because without some kind of secret-sauce learning method I'd imagine it would take years.

This is from personal experience - works for me, may not work for you.

I have found that people who enunciate every word they read in their heads read a lot slower than those who can pattern match (without reading out the word in their head). I belong to the earlier category and have friends who belong to the latter. No matter how fast I tried to read, I could never finish a novel in a night (like the others did).

It's really easy to see which one are you - try and read a line of text making sure you do not read out the words out in your head. If the line makes absolutely no sense to you, you are like me. The text pattern needs to be converted into audio, which then links to meaning. Maybe its just the way our brains are arranged.

What has worked very well for me is listening to books on audible. I can easily listen to most books at 2X (and sometimes 2.5X) the speed of narration. A typical large book (like the recent one on Elon Musk) is about 14 hrs narration. I could successfully finish the book in less than 7 hours - something I could never do if I was just reading it. I also feel like I retain more, although I cannot be sure of this without more data.

I'm one of the guys who can pattern match. But for me this works only for novels and other "light" literature where remembering details of the story is not very important.

If I really want to learn/understand something it's much better to read the text in my head, so I have the opportunity to think more about what I just read. Or I pause after each paragraph.

Audiobooks didn't work for me at all - my mind always wanders away. Maybe I should try 2x speed.

A lot of people(including me) who tried to learn speed reading spend much effort on trying to eliminate "reading out loud" in their head, instead of actually spend the time to read some book.

It's great to hear the experience from someone who actually knows speed reading techniques. I guess "reading out loud" isn't so bad after all. thanks for you input :)

I get very distracted at 1x. There is a speed of maximum efficiency that works for me - generally around 2X. When information is thrown that fast at you, as long as you can catch it, there is no way to get distracted (unless there is a physical distraction).

Try listening at 2X or 3X while lying down with your eyes closed. Apparently, your brain will start to engage your visual cortex for listening and the speed becomes quite manageable.

I agree with your point on audiobooks. I have been doing it myself for a while too, but I always find myself wondering afterwards how this is not helping me to be a better reader.



Edit: There's an active-ish subreddit about Speed Reading[0], maybe you'll find it useful.


A few ideas:

- Get a book about speed reading. It should cover both techniques for reading the words faster, and for using the structure of the book to retain more during each pass. Do the exercises in the book.

- Pick stuff that has a high signal/noise ratio. That way, the limiting factor will be your brain's ability to process the content, rather than your raw reading speed.

- Only read high-quality books. Spend time reading reviews on Amazon for each book before you start, to ensure that it's a book that you will find useful/entertaining at this particular time in your life.

- Prioritise what you want to learn.

- In fiction books, go faster through parts which cover familiar ground. Sure, there might be some unique perspective that you miss occasionally, but you'll more than make up for the loss with the time you get to spend on new stuff.

speed reading never seemed to work for me(faster = lower comprehension). If there's a way to speed read, I think it would be how to identify key points faster. After all, most of the stuff is boilerplate and examples.

You should train your retention in addition to speed when learning and practicing those techniques.

I've been transitioning to audio books as much as possible lately simply because I can multitask with it and I find I have a much faster through put.

They cost a lot more but its a small price to pay to get through the material in a way that I actually absord.

I've found information passes by me if I do anything else than listening to the audio book.

Some people believe multitasking is a myth. I'm one of those people. I also believe when listening audio books, you shouldn't do anything else. Probably not even driving. Laying in bed or sitting in the sofa are my best ways.

Lots of people get very interested in audibooks and quickly stop listening, citing concentration issues. I always recommend to those people to stop doing whatever else they are doing and simply listen to the book, and people often come back to me and tell me they gave it a second shot and love it.

> Some people believe multitasking is a myth. I'm one of those people.

I'm able to wash dishes and listen to an audio book quite fine. Going for a walk, or doing other things I normally wouldn't be able to do while reading. Can I multitask with any task? No. But I can effectively do two things at once.

I guess it would depend on the activities. Walking down the street and chewing a gum - fine. Driving and listening to Dumas? Not so much, in my opinion.

Stuff like going for a run or sweeping the house I can easily do while listening to an audio book. But you're right, anything more cognitively demanding than that and I have to choose one or the other.

You could try picking up a reading & comprehension test-prep book, like you would find for SAT/ACT, GRE, MCAT, etc and practice reading the passages fast and doing some questions for comprehension. This way, you have concise material (500 - 800 word passages), that are complex in wording and ideas, and you can test yourself to see how much of the passage you understood.

Reading fast is one thing and comprehension/retention of the material is another. Ideally, you would want to improve all three simultaneously. That's why I'm suggesting start off with smaller, more manageable passages and analyze your understanding as you progress. You may get every question wrong in the beginning, but don't let that bum you out. Keep doing a few passages every day and you should definitely see improvement.

Once you build up a strong base, you can move onto articles, like you would find in The New Yorker for example, that can span several pages and are littered with more complex ideas and examples. You really won't be able to test yourself with questions at the end, but you can ask yourself general questions, like:

"What was the main idea?"

"What side did the author take?" (if the piece was argumentative in nature)

"What were two examples that the author used to support their claim?" (again, if a claim was being made)

Be honest with yourself, if you find it difficult to answer questions like these, read through the article again and go through it with a highlighter (sparingly, mind you). Also, you can write little notes in the margin to help you gather the content and your thoughts as you go along.

I hope this helps and best of luck :)

Interesting how the speed readers tended to give short replies with links to tools while the slow readers tended to give longer replies, questioning the premise that learning to speed read is effective for learning. If OP, a speed reader, speed reads poorly, whose advise will s/he follow?

All the answers here confirm my experience: read slower, concentrate more. The ability to concentrate on the subject is not to be underestimated.

Twenty years ago my grandparent finished a 400+ book in two and a half days while I was playing around. He did something else in between. I've never finished the book to this day - or maybe I did, but I don't remember. I was in a virtual contest to match those 2.5 days to retain anything of value.

Edit: As you concentrate more you tend to read faster. You get into the flow state and stuff. Also, I find several speed reading techniques to have some value (peripheral vision, non-vocalisation etc.)

1) some people have reading disabilities. The most well known is dyslexia but there are others.

2) when you read a fiction book have a pen and pad of post-its. Everytime a new character is introduced write their name on the post-it and stick it to the page. Maybe asterisk the margin to help you locate it quicker. You can add more info to the post-it as it comes up.

3) get someone else to quiz you. Have them do this onnce a week.

4) after every session close the book and try to paraphrase what you read.

What field are you in?

When I speak to law or business students they often complain they cannot keep up with the reading. The problem is that they are actually reading every word. Learning to efficiently skim through a long document is different than reading every word.

On the other end of the spectrum are medical students who are often expected to soak in every detail. That means reading each and every word. They don't read slower than law students, just differently.

Tim Ferriss created a video on "How to Triple Your Reading Speed"[0]. Eye movement is a significant factor of your reading speed. Simply using a tracer has immediately improved my reading speed.

[0] https://youtu.be/jeOHqI9SqOI

As someone with a bad memory as well, I don't think you'll find a silver bullet here.

Think about it this way: I think almost everyone's done some form of exercise in school or online that shows how bad most people are about absorbing details unless they know they're significant when they see them. Imagine spending 10 hours walking around an unfamiliar mall, even if you took concentration breaks, and being able to answer specific questions about your experience. How many times did you go around? How many people did you see? How many stores are there? Can you list them? You probably couldn't answer any of those, but you probably would remember a few of the most significant moments. Someone who bumped into you, a crying child, a shoplifter, a beautiful stranger, a shirt you wanted.

If you tried, and knew ahead of time, you could probably actually answer one or two of the above questions by actively spending most of your limited attention--but I would bet you'll remember even less about the rest of your experience. You might not even notice the beautiful stranger.

You can, of course, train yourself to become more aware of your surroundings as they pass by, and if you saw something you wanted to remember you could practice some techniques to make it more likely you'd hold on to the details. Now, imagine being able to remember your answer to any of those questions about the mall trip two years later. Unless you regularly reference the mall trip and your answer, you'll probably forget.

This doesn't mean reading books you don't remember is useless. Our experiences still rub off on us, affecting who we are and how we move in the world. You don't say what kind of books you're reading, nor what you hope to remember about them later. I think those are where the best answers to your question lie. Some books have little more than one or two ideas worth remembering; read them as fast as you can (both speed-reading and skimming techniques can be of use, here). Others can change your life, if you unpack them as you go; you would be a fool to hurry through them.

Learning to understand the words passing under your eyes at a high rate of speed is a great tool, but be aware that you're reducing the life-surface-area of what you read when you do so. You'll make fewer connections as you go, so it gets increasingly important to use other strategies for making them. Engage with significant ideas as you find them. A summative note is a good start, but it's better to connect it with other ideas, apply it to a problem, expand on it, or talk with someone about it.

This is a free python gtk3 speed reading tool:


It needs a lot of polishing but may be a good start for you.

I have consciously tried to increase my reading speed on many occasions. This is what has helped me get better:

- One of the most common technique is to not read every word as such, instead, read a chunk of words together, and don't 'voice' them. It takes some practice to be able to do this, but to check if you are reading correctly, see if you can hear every word in your head while you read it. If thats the case you are doing it wrong. And when you start doing it right, you will notice the change in speed.

- I read non-fiction mostly, and find it very annoying when the author beats around the bush before conveying his point. Its a very natural phenomenon among authors to write an entire paragraph, when the point could have been conveyed in a single line. (Infact, I fear I may be doing the same in this comment ... :P). Agreed that most books are proof read multiple times by many people, but some loops still come in the final print.

- In most cases, we are expecting something from a book. Either guidance on something specific like finance, or motivation, or something else. There are places in a book where you know for sure that this is not what you are seeking. Skim through that part, and move ahead. Believe me, this will save a lot of your time, and you will come out with the same value in a lot less time.

- Writing something yourself also helps to identify presence of the above 2 factors. You will re-read your blog for sure, and most blogging time is spent on deleting redundant parts, than writing. In every iteration, you will find more things to delete. Be ruthless in this process, respect the reader and don't waste his time. Once you do this yourself, you will know whether the author of the article/book that you are reading has done it.

- As for your point about retaining what you have read, I wouldn't worry much about that. We feel that most of the information has faded away quickly, when in fact, it just gets filtered, and when a topic relevant to what you have read comes up, you will be able to access what you read, not exactly maybe, but the gist of it. Its a very pleasant surprise when this happens. (Daniel Kahneman has some interesting things to say about this kind of information retrieval)

- Lastly, read Paul Graham and Sam Altman's essays. they are precise, no wasted words at all. Also, Ben Horowitz's answers, and his book Hard thing about hard things.

- Measure against these benchmarks, and you will realise that you will have to really 'read' much less overall. For the remaining part, employ the advice of @SonOfLilit in the comment below.

there is an expression, no one forgets how you make them feel. so when you read try to feel the words - as you accelerate. Imagine feel hear them - as you pick up your speed. This way retention will keep up with your rising reading speed. It takes a whole lot more effort to read this way but at least for me retention far greater(i'd say order of magnitude higher, but I haven't measured it :) )

Without this for me speedreading is scanning, I omit most of the content.

Try the speed reading courses from http://www.irisreading.com/

Do you sound out each word silently? That is a common bottle neck.

Check out How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler.

great book, although the book could have been much more concise though.

Read more information dense texts.

wake up early and meditate. helps you to focus on one task.

You can read much faster if you can break yourself of the habit of sub-vocalizing words as you read them. I think most of us were probably initially taught to read aloud, and spent far too much time doing that during our schooling. If you can instead read the entire word as a logical unit, rather than having to break it down in your mind into syllables or individual letters, you can read much more quickly.

This does seem to require a pretty strong visual memory to be able to store and recall the "look" of a word, and you also need to have a relatively extensive vocabulary, or else you will be bumping into unfamiliar words that you have to look up or infer from context.

That's what works for me, anyway. YMMV

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact