Speed Reading

When everyone around me is checking book after book off their reading list, I start to wonder if I really should take Tim Ferris’s advice about learning speed reading skills. I could get through so many books, and it would be so impressive. Imagine how smart I would get if I could finish 2-3 books a week!

Sometimes I find myself inadvertently employing some of those methods—skimming paragraphs, taking note only of the main ideas. Some books aren’t worth any more attention than this. But what I’ve realized is that the books I love deserve so much more. The best writers hide their treasures within unexpected imagery and clever wording. If you don’t take the time to unpack each sentence, then you’re missing the best part.

As I read Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, I can’t help but marvel at the depth to which her writing draws me in. If I start to read too quickly, a phrase or image will jump out and make me pause, then reread the last paragraph to find what I’ve missed.

Her words are so thick I can almost chew them. They’re so rich that I have to run my tongue over them, tasting all the subtle flavors. And they nourish me, filling up my hollow insides, giving me strength through their beauty.

To give you an example, her narrative on dealing with grief is especially poignant:

The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it, like a nicotine craving, I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. After a while it was like an inside shower, washing off some of the rust and calcification in my pipes. It was like giving a dry garden a good watering. Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit.

I’m pretty sure that it is only by experiencing that ocean of sadness in a naked and immediate way that we come to be healed—which is to say that we come to experience life with a real sense of presence and spaciousness and peace.

While I disagree with some of the conclusions she draws in the book, her writing awakens something inside me that leaves me craving more and inspires me to try to reach others in at least a glimmer of the way she has touched me. If you want to open yourself up to this transforming art, then you have to slow down and pay attention to more than the plot line. For books like this, speed reading will ruin your experience in the same way that rushing through life will sap the joy you can gain by living in the moment.

Don’t succumb to the pressure to read faster. It’s not about the number of books you can put on your list. Instead, read deeper. Make sure you’re getting the most out of everything. If it’s a flavorless, slimy book on marketing that you just HAVE to read if you ever want to succeed in your career, then plug your nose and gulp it down like the medicine that it is. Otherwise, throw that book out the window and go find yourself some true nourishment.

2 thoughts on “Speed Reading”

  1. Yes! If you can really get all of the content of a book by speed-reading, then I would say that the book wasn’t written very well to begin with. I tend to read mostly fiction books and nonfiction articles, and even short articles are all too often repetitive. Finishing three books a week isn’t so transformative if they are books that only have a few chapters’ worth of content.

  2. Definitely agree. Speed-reading is only for those trying to get information–and the best books aren’t about information.

    I’m reading Bird by Bird now. It’s very quirky and funny; I catch myself laughing out loud. It does make me want to read her other work.

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