How to Read a Book Faster — and Why It's a Long, Slow Process

Oh, the controversy of speed reading. Say it's a party: On one side of the room, the passionate speed-readers are talking a mile a minute and have already finished half of War and Peace while listening to their friend's ex-girlfriend's aunt rhapsodize about her root canal complications. On the other side of the room, the slow readers are deliberately consuming the first sentences of War and Peace as though they're sipping a fine Scotch, stopping occasionally to stare into a crackling fire and muse on the meaning of friendship and battle. Is there a middle ground?

To live a functional, informed life, it's very useful to be a fast reader, but a speed reader? Speed reading is great when you've got a deadline, a particularly dry chapter to get through, or when you just need to know the basics. It's not, however, the best way to understand a Hemingway novel or learn a complicated scientific concept or absorb the nuances of poetry. In “Reading in a Digital Age,” Sven Birkerts writes, “The reader who reads without directed concentration, who skims, or even just steps hurriedly across the surface, is missing much of the real point of the work.”

These are ways to read faster while still absorbing the text at hand. These are not classic speed-reading tips, like “stop sub-vocalization” and “preview what's on the page,” but thoughtful skills to build up over weeks and months of reading with purpose and care. Because why turn reading into some sort of horrid task that we have to finish as soon as possible? On the other hand, why treat it as painful work that never ends?

Embrace the art of single-tasking

When you sit down to read, clear the room and shake your head free of cobwebs. Treat the moment as though you're about to go to bed: Turn off the TV, move your phone to the dresser, get yourself a glass of water. (Don't, uh, take a Xanax or anything.) Prepare to focus on reading and reading only.

Read consciously

Don't let your mind wander. Easier said than done, right? What you have to do is focus on focusing on reading. Continually remind yourself that you're here both to read and to comprehend what you read. It's a simple tip, but I find it very effective. My mind begins to wander easily, and my eyes begin to bounce all over the page, but all it takes is a simple thought — pay attention — and I'm back to reading in straight lines. Herd your mind, like a rambunctious sheep, back into the fold as often as you have to, so that you avoid the awful sensation of "reading" 10 pages without remembering any of it.

Be patient with yourself

Your mind will wander. You will want to check Facebook. You don't need me to remind you that the Internet has wrecked our attention spans. Don't expect to sit down and immediately become absorbed in War and Peace, and don't hate yourself when the reading process feels difficult, slow, or inefficient at first. Stick with it, because you can...

Rebuild your attention span

Maryanne Wolf, the author of Proust and the Squid, has studied deep reading for years — and yet found it difficult to sit down and read a printed novel after day of reading online. When she dove into “The Glass Bead Game” by Herman Hesse, she says it was “torture getting through the first page.” She stuck with it, though, and two weeks later, “it was like I recovered. I found my ability again to slow down, savor, and think.”

Read on paper

Reading on a screen sounds efficient, but it might be hurting our reading comprehension. Preliminary research by two professors at West Chester University shows that when it comes to reading comprehension, children retain more information from print books than from e-books. Give your brain a helping hand, and buy the paperback version.

Meditate

Wondering how in the world you can possibly rebuild an attention span shattered from years of obsessive Twitter usage? You can read more Herman Hesse, but you can also hit the meditation mat. A study found that when participants meditated for a half hour each day over the course of eight weeks, their brains physically changed, resulting in “increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory.” This isn't a short-term solution — it won't teach you to speed-read that Henry James novel by Friday night — but it's the war, not the battle, that counts. At least, that's what the bros say.

Reward yourself

Be shameless and promise yourself a treat when you finally reach that 50-page mark. Why not? If you have some serious reading to do and you're stressed at the thought of a night spent poring over dense text, turn it into a game. Might I recommend Nutella and peanut butter on a spoon? It's the oldest psychological trick in the world. In fact, there's probably a book about it.

Images: king-edward; aliastron; ally_m/flickr