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Slow Reading: the antithesis of speed reading (theindy.us)
165 points by newman8r 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

My ex-girlfriend used to joke that I was "functionally illiterate." She had gotten the habit from her mother of going to the local library and getting a half dozen books, which she'd have read in two weeks, before she returned to the library. I read maybe 2 novels a year at most. However, she would always marvel at how I could recall details and recount sequences of events or describe memorable scenes. All she was ever left with was a kind of emotional impression from having read the books, and could recall very little. She would also be bewildered at watching me read. Sometimes I would read just a few pages, then put the book down then stare at the walls, absorbing what I'd just read. There was one part of "Kavalier and Klay" that was less than a dozen pages long, but took me two days to get through.


My ex read crazy fast and learned a lot of his vocabulary from reading -- and mispronounced a lot of stuff, couldn't remember details, etc.

I was in gifted classes in school. I have always read slower than most of the people around me, like the ex, my sister, my kids, my high school classmates. But, yes, I remember details, etc.

Before age and boatloads of prescription drugs stole my memory, I could, at times, nearly quote some paragraphs for a few weeks afterwards in some cases -- especially if I wrote it or if I read through it more than once for some reason.

I do this too and thought it was just my ADD brain slowing me down but I realized I actually internalized the material the more I stopped and savored the scenes I was reading.

> Sometimes I would read just a few pages, then put the book down then stare at the walls, absorbing what I'd just read.

Haha, this is like me reading

Nietzsche wrote about slow reading:

"Philologie nämlich ist jene ehrwürdige Kunst, welche von ihrem Verehrer vor allem eins heischt, beiseite gehn, sich Zeit lassen, still werden, langsam werden –, als eine Goldschmiedekunst und -kennerschaft des Wortes, die lauter feine vorsichtige Arbeit abzutun hat und nichts erreicht, wenn sie es nicht lento erreicht. Gerade damit aber ist sie heute nötiger als je, gerade dadurch zieht sie und bezaubert sie uns am stärksten, mitten in einem Zeitalter der »Arbeit«, will sagen: der Hast, der unanständigen und schwitzenden Eilfertigkeit, das mit allem gleich »fertig werden« will, auch mit jedem alten und neuen Buche: – sie selbst wird nicht so leicht irgend womit fertig, sie lehrt gut lesen, das heißt langsam, tief, rück- und vorsichtig, mit Hintergedanken mit offengelassenen Türen, mit zarten Fingern und Augen lesen... Meine geduldigen Freunde, dies Buch wünscht sich nur vollkommne Leser und Philologen: lernt mich gut lesen!"

"Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow – it is a goldsmith's art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of 'work', that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to 'get everything done' at once, including every old or new book: this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers . . . My patient friends, this book desires for itself only perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well!"

I wonder whether Nietzsche wrote that because of his mother tongue... for me, switching between English and German is just like switching down 5 gears in a car...

I think of reading as a process of tuning between the mind of the writer and the reader.. like a dialogue, you can modulate the speed until you both feel comfortable with ..

Few things are as pleasurable as slowly savoring the text imprinted on a paper or an e-book reader, especially fiction that engrossed you.

I always make sure to leave some relaxing music on before diving into my favorite piece of text/book. Practicing 'mindful reading' has greatly enhanced my reading experience and it goes hand-in-hand with slow reading. [0]

[0] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/19/well/mind/how-to-be-mindf...

What are you reading on parchment? Pedantic but if you're meaning paper, paper and parchment are not the same thing.

Fixed. Sympathize with your pedantism.

*pedantry (intentionally self-referential!)

The only reasonable approach is to adjust your reading speed based on the topic you're reading. Is it interesting or relevant? Read slower. Is it dense and complex? Read slower.

Are you just scanning or reading for hobby/light interest, maybe hoping to encounter something interesting? Read a bit faster and slow down when needed.

I find that there are so many weird misconceptions about "how you are supposed to read a book". Just read however you like, reading comprehension and regulating your speed based on the content is a skill, something you might want to practice. But you definitely don't have to speed-read or slow-read everything once you've learned how to do that.

> reading comprehension and regulating your speed based on the content is a skill

Knowing how to modulate is an important skill in programming and mathematics as well.

I've seen the two extremes of "failure to modulate" with programs, especially with new programmers (students/interns). Some will speed read through the program, never slowing down to pay attention to critical pieces that may help them discover how to fix a bug or implement a missing feature. Others will slowly and methodically read every line, wasting away days on what should take hours or minutes by performing a depth-first search through each stack at each program point.

I've also seen this failure to modulate in mathematics. Students who get to chapter 5 of a dense text before realizing they have no intuitive or even formal understanding of the definitions on page 1. And students who spend their entire week interrogating unimportant definitions or lemmas because they do not get a sense for the overall structure of the chapter before diving into details.

Reading is such an important skill, and we as a society do a fairly good job at teaching how to read non-technical material. But reading skills are probably the most important thing that's (not) taught in math and CS.

Assuming that the student is a complete beginner. Do you think the best way to read a challenging technical book is to speed-read at the start - to pinpoint the essentials and get an overall picture - then read again, this time slower?

At both speeds, it’s still deliberate reading.

Maybe you know more techniques which are better?

I don't think "speed reading" is necessary, but being able to read not-slowly and knowing how to effectively skim are both useful skills. Truly speed reading anything remotely technical -- especially mathematics -- is probably an exercise in futility (at least for me).

Quickly reading from beginning to end is useful, but only if you know why you're doing that and what you should be looking for. Examples:

- "this lemma gets used over and over in the proofs";

- "this theorem seems to be the main result of the text";

- "this function is where all the action is";

- "the application is organized around this framework"; etc.)

The only really effective technique I know is guided practice. From a teaching perspective, you can spend a lecture on "technical reading skills" like this:

1. assign a reading and make it very clear that this reading is non-optional, that the whole point of the next lecture is to talk about technical reading skills, and explain how huge an advantage students have in life if they know how to read technical content well.

2. hold a quiz that checks for comprehension (e.g., a proof that's a trivial result of a key theorem; a program that's a trivial modification of a key algorithm; etc. Basically, something that's trivial if you did the reading and understood the "main point" but hard enough that you're not going to be able to do it otherwise).

You can peer grade the quiz on the spot, or not, but at some point make sure you grade the quiz so that students who did poorly know that they need to work on reading.

3. Walk through the text on the projector, pointing out "oh look that idea from the algorithm got used here and here and here" or "and we're using that lemma again and again", etc.

You do this once or a couple of times and then invite struggling students to office hours for individual practice.

Reinforce this the rest of the semester. Force students to practice reading by holding (fiar and easy) quizzes on the assigned reading prior to covering the material in lecture. Respect students by going beyond the assigned reading in lecture. Help students improve by doing a good job at grading the quizzes, or by doing little exercises on the board that focus on trivial extensions of the "main idea" of the assigned reading.

Good examples of CS topics this works for are the pumping lemma and dynamic programming. Simple enough that there's a relatively short reading on the topic, but complicated enough that you can really test technical reading skills.

Taking notes and making a book summary seems to be the most efficient way. I used to do it informally but after taking inspiration from Derek Sivers I do it more formally [0].

[0] https://sivers.org/book


I personally feel there are multiple "levels" or "layers" to understanding a book. It's a bit loose, but I'd say technical books have "structure", "content", "detail" and "cohesion".

The structure of the book is how chapters, section, subsections and the index are related to each other. You can learn about the structure by taking a look at the index, reading chapter intros/outros/summaries, and you will get a better feeling for it while reading the book as well.

The content is basically just everything in the book except any meta-content, such as headings, the index and references, etc... So graphs, text, chapters, blablalba

The details of the book are the most relevant, precise, thought-out content, you could alternatively call these "topics". Consider a given chapter of any book, it usually introduces a topic, gives some examples, counterexamples, might tell a story about it, it could add a debate, show a graph, and it might describe sub-topics. The whole chapter is mostly about that topic as a whole anyway. That's the detail.

Lastly, the "cohesion" is how the book's topics are interrelated on a detailed level. For example, what implications does the content introduced in chapter 5 have on chapter 6? And on chapter 4? Some concepts take multiple chapters (or books!) to comprehend as a whole. Sometimes a book needs to introduce some concepts before the bigger picture can be explained. This cohesion, in my mind, is related to the "larger than the sum of its parts" idea.

I guess the idea of cohesion can also be extended to how the book's content and ideas relate to what you already know, or other books you may or may not have read. Again; it's how the topics interrelate.

Different reading styles, writing exercises and re-readings of a book will give expand your understanding in those 4 layers.

For example, skimming (30 min, skip through entire book) will give you a vague but helpful foundational feeling for the structure and cohesion of the book. Likewise, speed-reading will give a reasonable foundational feeling for the content and detail of the book. Writing a mind-map of a chapter, asking questions about paragraphs, summarizing chapters will improve your understanding of the content and topics.

I personally feel that I often don't completely "understand" a book, I believe that if I take the time to work on those 4 layers of understanding on every level of the book, I would.

I strongly strongly strongly recommend taking a look at the book "how to read a book", the concepts I just stated are my own, but the book helped me completely rethink about how I approach reading in general. I used to be afraid of tacking huge books, I feel like I can actually read them with some confidence


I’m a rambler too so it’s all fair ;)

See, I’ve been focusing on reading this year, more specifically to find out what my style and interests are, and how I can develop them further. For me it’s unrealistic to “just read away” - there are many different types of books and courtesy to our digital world/ genes/ whatever, my brain is definitely re-wired so that it’s very difficult to maintain focus for long. So naturally I’m interested in reading techniques (and other types of acquisition) and what others’ experiences are like.

But the deeper I go into this project, I am also beginning to wonder that perhaps, even self-proclaimed bookworms may not actually be reading as effectively as they think they are. By “effective”, I mean getting the same-ish level of clarity that the author had when writing it. And so I think you’re right about books having layers of meaning. Which this alone has powerful implications: it means a reading list should not be a ticking box exercise, as so many of us think, but a reference library - you have the freedom to read and revisit however you like, depending on your current intellectual needs. And it also means that books are actually very dynamic and so you shouldn’t really take them too seriously - it’s OK to get an understanding to a limited level only.

It’s interesting, let’s see how this reading project goes.

Anyway back to chomping dense technical books. This is definitely a big weakness of mine - no matter how interesting a book is, I just cannot stay motivated for long. But it may be because I’m approaching it the wrong way. I generally like to dip in and out, and be very selective about what to savour in. So I am probably treating technical books wrongly - taking it too lightly when each should be an individual project, really. I think another factor is confidence - it’s easy to get intimidated but I find that the more I become familiar with the concepts and basics, the tome gets easier. Which means it’s necessary to have a “learning pathway” of books e.g. Sal Khan’s circuit videos and “Electronica for Dummies” before the granddaddy “The Art of Electronics”.

“As the biggest library if it is in disorder is not as useful as a small but well-arranged one, so you may accumulate a vast amount of knowledge but it will be of far less value to you than a much smaller amount if you have not thought it over for yourself.”

– Arthur Schopenhauer

I’ve always been struck by this quote, because I think Schopenhauer is fundamentally right. Information is only useful when you master it inside and out.

Schopenhauer's essay on reading is brilliant and worth reading in its entirety [0]

> When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. It is the same as the pupil, in learning to write, following with his pen the lines that have been pencilled by the teacher. Accordingly, in reading, the work of thinking is, for the greater part, done for us. This is why we are consciously relieved when we turn to reading after being occupied with our own thoughts. But, in reading, our head is, however, really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal — that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk.

[0] https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/essays/...

I have been thinking about this. Am reading Homo Deus now, it’s great as they say, but also feels like the author has placed the things extremely neatly in one web. Of course, the more authoritative, the more it becomes a personal worldview.

> gradually loses the ability to think for himself

If you read a lot of these “worldviewed” writings without actively seeking what you personally think, and if you stay in a bubble as well, then maybe I can agree with Schopenhauer. But the pros outweigh the cons by a massive leap. Reading is a real unfair advantage as there is no way that a single lifetime can discover what has been discovered over millennia.

Having said that, reinventing the wheel (discovering valuable insights on your own) is not wasteful at all - that will always feel more real and precious than the most poignant writing. And I personally dislike speed reading - pace is something that is highly personal and variable, and no one should feel bad about it.

I like this quote, but if libraries were hash tables with O(1) lookup time a large messy one is better.

Sometimes the way thoughts pop into my head I think brains are more like hash tables than arrays.

Of course, extreme over simplification :D

> but if libraries were hash tables with O(1) lookup time a large messy one is better.

If the lookup time was O(1) then it's not a large messy library, it's a large neat library.

Besides, the "neatness" of your mind is an metaphor for your ability understand a piece of knowledge in the context of the whole. This is not a literal organizational issue, but a conceptual understanding of how different ideas "fit" together. It takes time and effort to deeply understand and connect a single piece of knowledge to the whole.

This quote is not about your ability to quickly recall X, but your ability to relate X to A, B, and C.

The drawback of hash tables is that they're bad for inexact matching. Likewise, when I go to the library, I usually go to the section I'm interested in and let my eyes wander. So something that pseudorandomly organizes books but lets you find them by exact title quickly is not so good.

For those interested, I recommend reading "How to Read a Book" by Adler. It basically outlines the details of getting the most out of reading in different contexts.

Agreed. It is an incredible book at getting you to really think about how you read.

Only tangentially related: When it came out and became a bestseller, another book came out kind of making fun of the title. It was called "How to Read Two Books."

Should have made a video called "How to Read 'How to Read a Book.'"

Necessary break in the irony of a book telling you how to read books.

I’m dyslexic. I’ve had the benefit of a great education and my reading has gotten a lot better over the years. Of course, when I couldn’t read at all, I didn’t enjoy it. But between 4th and 7th grade, when I could read, but only slowly, I practically inhaled books. After that, I learned to read faster, which was great for the demands of high school classes but, I have realized more recently, killed my love of reading. I think returning to the way I used to read, where I labored over every word, may help me regain it.

I have dyslexic issues and always find myself falling back to reading each word. But as an interesting antidote I hated to read before 6th grade and after that just inhaled fiction books until collage where I shifted back to slow reading dense technical writings.

This makes me think of required summer reading in lower and middle school. I hated it so much. We’d have to read something like 5-10 books over the three month break. It was totally counter productive. The point was to get us to read a lot, thinking that’s how we’d learn to enjoy it (or something like that). I’d have to skim through as much as I could hoping to pick up enough to BS my way through a book report the first week of school. If anything, it may have taught me to not take homework seriously and to cheat. Luckily, I didn’t become a big cheater.

Maybe had they just assigned a single book and encouraged us to read it slowly and carefully, we could have enjoyed reading more and actually absorbed the text.

I’ll wager the web, and especially handheld devices, are destroying people’s reading comprehension. I find myself skipping through text, looking for that kernel. I always print out technical articles. The printed page is a cue to slow down.

I've noticed the complete opposite effect.

I used to read really slow and take down meticulous notes.

Just starting a book meant I had predefined ideas of "ok, you're in this for the long haul, you know how much effort it will take to consume this material". That in itself is a reading deterrent.

If your goal of reading is to learn something new and improve yourself, then you're way better off seeing if you can learn the important bits of the book (80 / 20 rule), and then repeat this process for 10 different books in a similar subject.

The difference between fully slow reading and taking notes on a book could be on the order of 15 dedicated "real" hours vs 30 minutes of skimming and reading specific things that highly relate to what you're doing now.

If you only read a book carefully once, then chances are you're going to forget most of what you read anyways. Might as well make the best use of your time and devour as much as you can to get you going and then spend a majority of your time doing the thing that you were trying to improve from reading in the first place.

Basically treat books as something you'll reference / skim many times over instead of being a super thorough "only once" event where you treat it as if someone is going to give you a graded test when you're done.

Do both: read books quickly, re-read books slowly.

I have never been a fan of fast reading techniques/book summary services. I like taking my time with books (maybe too much sometimes) because I feel understand the author's idea better if I get some time to reflect on the words. So I usually try not to rush through books. However, slow reading (the concept described in this article) makes me feel sleepy... I guess I stick to my inner reading speed.

I think of it the other way around. While I didn't get much from the 800wpm level, I found the training on not backtracking and understanding the eye movements allowed me to understand better, not worse, and still allowed me to stop at my leisure. It's less that I'm rushing through the book and more that I'm being more intentional about it.

    I found training on not backtracking and understanding eye movements allowed me to understand better ...
What did you train in regards to backtracking & eye movement? It seems vaguely familiar to how I read (backtracking over paragraphs pretty frequently) -- is there some reading I can do on this?

Tony Buzan's speed reading book brings this up, particularly the eye movement.

The eye has two types of movement: the one you use to move from one object to another; and then the one that follows an object. He recommends the latter when speed reading, using a pen or pointy thing as an aid, your eyes following the tip as you sweep it across the page. You can move it from side to side, or down the middle, or zig-zagging, etc.

You accompany this with a metronome, to move the pen in regular movements.

I think in time the idea is that you can abandon the pen and metronome once you've got used to reading this way.

Aren't saccades inevitable unless actually tracking something?

Maybe. One could try imagining an invisible line and tracking that. It helps not to focus on the text itself, but on the space just above the page, just as the tip of pen would be hovering above the page as it sweeps across. That way the eye doesn't fixate on words and cause saccades.

One way to address backtracking is to use a tool like BeeLine Reader [1]. It wraps text in a color gradient that flows from one line to the next.

1: http://www.beelinereader.com/individual

Note: I am the founder

That's my understanding too. Speed reading is not just about reader faster, but reading more comfortably, avoiding tiring out the eyes by using them more effectively, thereby aiding both comprehension and retention.

As a technical writer, I think it’s important to understand speed reading and design for it when writing docs. I’m not saying that all developers are formalled trained in and intentionally doing speed reading, but when you think about your own “information foraging” habits when browsing docs in order to get something done, you’ll find that your habits probably resemble speed reading a lot more than slow reading. At least in the initial phase, when you’re hunting for relevant information.

In general, I’d say that speed reading is handy when you’re hunting for relevant information, and slow reading could be handy once you’re reasonably sure that you’ve found it. But up until that point, slow reading would be a waste of time (I.e. spending too much time on irrelevant information).

I've found that the proponents of speed reading mostly only read non fiction books that help them with their career (directly or indirectly), so I guess it makes sense to speed through them... but yeah, I can't even do that with the nonfiction books I read.

I think that and also some people want to be able to speak about topics they don't know about. For example a friend of mine (a doctor) was not familiar with the concepts of "agile" so he went and had downloaded a book summary as audio and listen to it during his commute. Now he doesn't feel like a complete idiot when the topic comes up. I guess he pays the service exactly for this feeling

Trying to speed read mathematics at least seems like a pretty bad idea. Maybe it works better for shallow self help books?

Having taken a speed reading course and read guides on it, I’ve akways felt like the main goal was to retrain your mind to process info non-verbally. Once comfortable with that skill, it could be applied to whatever you want. In the extreme case, judging from anecdotes of John Von Neumann, I can only assume he was able to process math reading this way. https://www.quora.com/What-interesting-facts-should-everyone...

Assuming he could speed read math, was a genius because he could speed read math or could he speed read math because he was a genius

Just an example of what the optimum experience would be if you could process non-verbally and utilize the info. Unclear to me what the relationship is between genius and non-verbal processing - can’t hurt to improve the skill and see how the info helps or doesn’t

Yeah I notice the sleepiness as well. It might actually be a good way to read a few pages before going to sleep.

I speed read things that can be speed read. I did speed read this article, about 12-15 seconds, and nothing would have been lost on a re-read, which I did. Within this, some sentences were a bit too engaging which was annoying.

I don't normally choose to read like this, but it's a quick way to find something to stick and pause on. The only thing that made me stick and pause was the use of italics. The typography of the blog and line spacing is super comfortable, a sure assistance to speed reading.

A novel, creative writing, a requirements document, analysis paper, no. Because every word has to have been carefully chosen. I enjoy that coz it's not writing for information distribution for the sake of it.

What's your technique for speed reading on the screen? I learned tricks for books that relied on my hand to help but they were not useful when reading a screen.

That's why I explicitly mentioned the comfort of the text size and line-spacing. Because that doesn't often happen.

I load an ebook to calibre and go from there. 28px, about 12-20 words per line, usually works for a phone at arm's length or a laptop at desk length.

I never learnt via any hand techniques, just picked it up on paper, a half-day (less than that as.. lunch) and good pointers. I think hand-blocking would have restricted speed. Your hand is not as fast as our eyes.

Speed reading also means "speed understanding". Glancing over words is not speed reading.

Speed reading means you could factually proof you could read extremely fast and retain most of the facts of the text.

From my experience, there is people out there that could do that (after extensive training). The main problem is that you need a standardized way of displaying the text so the mind could understand it super fast.

I have met speed readers personally in Spain, France and Germany.

For example HN does not let you speed read because of the format with long lines.

On a practical way way most text is not formatted for speed reading, it should be preprocessed first, which is illegal because of copyright in most countries.

I've always been a slow reader. There was a time when I considered that to be a fault. I tried to learn faster reading a number of times, but each time I found it unnatural and not very enjoyable. I have also noticed that reading slowly allows me to focus better and gain deeper understanding of the text. At some point I stopped trying to become a fast reader and now I'm just a slow, happy reader.

I'm a really slow reader, I wish I was faster.

My girlfriend has double the reading speed.

I have to read every word for itself :/

I can get to 100 pages per hour, but only if I identify filler paragraphs early on and skip them.

Slow coding next? Could save the world one day

I've seen far too much of it

It depends on how interesting the content it. Captivating content is easier to savor than boring, predictable content.

It took me a year to read Seneca's letters to Lucilius. And it was the most fruitful reading in my life.

Same goes for binge-watching a series.

Imagine watching all seasons of black mirror in one day...

Ive not had a more validating experience on HN.

Next hype: "Normal reading", synthesizing the benefits of Slow Reading and Fast Reading.

I'm sure there's an undercurrent reflective of a generalizable reality at work here.

Speed reading was desirable when lots of new exciting things were emerging in the late nineties. Note that simply "reading fast" didn't prevent the dot com bust.

Now, we have lots of new things, but they aren't exciting to us. In fact the prevailing wind is that of fatigue and overload. So now, going slow is perhaps perferable, whatever difference it might actually make.

In an economic sense, slow downs are viewed by go-getters as a reason to panic. "Oh no! I won't get my lunch at noon!" is how best to interpret that panic.

We actually have a lot of cool new things that magically appeared over the past thirty years, and as someone who has lived through it all, I feel like treadmill processes such as dependency hell and relentless up-versioning to bigger numbers robbed me of opportunities to deeply explore promising technologies.

But speed reading wasn't what was going to fix past problems, so why should slow reading fix current problems. It does seem to point to other facts though, if one chooses to look with those eyes.

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