March 24, 2007

Slow Reading

Category: Literature,Miscellaneous :: Permalink

Recently, on a couple of my friends’ blogs, I’ve seen mention of this article about doubling the speed with which you read.  [HT: Alastair and Pete.]  There’s some stuff in that article which would probably be helpful for a lot of readers (e.g., finding your motivation and eliminating distractions).

Still, I wonder a bit about the value of speed reading.  True, there are certain things that are worth only a quick read.  There’s no point in slowly, painstakingly working your way through a lot of novels.  And if you’re just reading for information, then it’s fine to skim or speed-read, looking for answers to your questions: “When was this town founded?  What was its population then?” and so forth.

But not everything ought to be read at breakneck speed, and though (as this article points out) subvocalizing is the number one thing that slows down your reading, there are times when subvocalization is best, as the follow-up article says:

Subvocalization can be useful. Just like it isn’t always wise to read fast, sometimes it makes sense to subvocalize. My article focused on how to read faster, but sometimes you need to read slower. Better reading comes from having a brake and a gas pedal not just one or the other. If you are having trouble comprehending, slowing down so you start subvocalizing again can eliminate distractions and refocus your mind on the material.

I have to admit that I’m a notorious and unrepentant subvocalizer.  I can read some things quickly and I don’t subvocalize all the time, but a lot of the time I’m saying the words in my mind as I read them.

I blame it on Walter Wangerin.  Years ago, when I was just a teenager who wanted to be a writer, I read an interview with him, probably in Christianity Today.  I can’t recall whether Wangerin said he subvocalizes when he read because he loves the sound of words and the way a good author puts them together or if he said it was the fact that he subvocalized as a kid that contributed to his love of words and good writing.  One or the other: it doesn’t matter.  I may have subvocalized before reading that article, but I did it deliberately after because I wanted to write and to write well and so I wanted to hear how good writing sounds to the ear.

I’m unrepentant, I say.  I still love the sound of words and words together.

If I were to speed-read Dubliners I could get the gist of what James Joyce is saying, but I wouldn’t hear the stories and in particular I wouldn’t hear the voice of the narrator or the various characters speaking.  Joyce used to write down conversations he overheard, I’m told, so that he could learn how to write dialogue the way it actually sounds.  It must have worked: I was in Bible college with an Irish girl and I hear traces of her voice in everything Joyce writes.

I can’t imagine wanting to speed-read Joyce.  Or Larry Woiwode, whose writing is always bordering on poetic and whose descriptions are so real it’s hard to believe that he hasn’t actually lived through exactly what he’s talking about himself.  Or P. G. Wodehouse or Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald, all of whom use striking metaphors you don’t want to speed past.

Or Gene Wolfe, whose writing in many of his books is fairly easy to read and might fool you into thinking you can pick up the pace, but who is hiding clues in plain view.  You could read through The Book of the Long Sun in a couple days if you wanted, especially if you’re reading 900 words a minute the way the writer of this article can.  But you would miss the symbolism and all the puzzles Wolfe loves to include, and all you would get is a bare sense of the basic plot but little of what makes Wolfe worth reading.

And can you imagine skimming a poem?  Yes, you could do it.  You could catch the basic gist (“This one’s about how his love is like a red rose and this other one is about growing old”) but you’d miss the poem itself.  Poetry depends on you listening to the words and even sounding them out.

It’s like food.  You can wolf down a Big Mac and be out of the restaurant in a matter of minutes.  But should you try to do that with your filet mignon and your glass of pinot noir in a classy restaurant?  Or with the meal your wife made for dinner?  No.  Fast food has its place, but slow food is better.  It’s better to take your time with a meal, to savor it, to visit with your family and friends and guests over the meal, to linger.

It’s okay to skim something quickly.  It’s okay to speed-read some books.  It’s sometime wise to skim a book first, get the gist of the argument and where the book’s heading, and then go back and read it more carefully.  And sometimes you have only so much time and so all you can do is read as much as you can as quickly as you can.

But if you’re reading Scripture, read it slowly.  In fact, the command in Scripture is not to read the Bible; it’s to hear it. And if you’re reading something beautiful, if you’re reading for the pleasure of words and the way they’re put together and to savor the writing or pick up the author’s clues or follow his arguments, slow down.  Sound out the words in your head and enjoy them.

Speed reading?  It has its place.  But let’s hear it for the slow reading movement.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:37 pm | Discuss (5)

5 Responses to “Slow Reading”

  1. Garrett Says:

    Hi John,

    I read “Breakthrough Rapid Reading” about 3 years before I went off to seminary. Life has never been the same. My reading speed tripled and it worked like a charm all through cemetary. I had plenty of time to read other things I wanted to. The trick is to know when to speed up or slow down (depending on the difficulty and importance of the material). BTW my retention went way up w/ speed-reading.

  2. bennett carnahan Says:


    I’m with you. I often find myself re-reading a particularly juicy passage in a whisper, enjoying the way the words roll around in my mouth and strike my ear. Really great writing (of whatever genre) seems to me to be most enjoyable when read outloud to one’s self (though such a practice certainly garners odd looks from the wife).


    I can sympathize with you (had a few years in college where I wished I were more proficient at speed-reading).

    just out of philosophical curiosity, what do you mean by “my retention went way up”? retention of what? did you find that the discipline of speed reading has improved the quality of your ‘normal’ reading in some way, or do you still speed read?



  3. Garrett Says:

    Hi Ben,

    I retained the material I read prior to learning speed reading poorly. I thought that w/ speed-reading (which I assumed was simply a skimming technique) I would retain less but the opposite occured. The only things I don’t speed read now are particular works of fiction which require some close attention (Flannery O’Connor for example).

  4. alastair.adversaria » More Links Says:

    […] Leithart also has some great posts on Jane Austen: ‘Keeping us Reading’, ‘Austen and Prejudice’ and ‘Communal Judgment, Communal Argument’. ***Tim Challies writes on the subject of discernment in the gray areas. ***Paleojudaica, Dr Jim Davila’s blog, turned 4 over the weekend. A belated ‘Happy Birthday!’. ***In my last links post, I linked to a post on speed-reading. Since then Matt has linked to this tool (I’m not sure that I find it particularly helpful, though) and the Evangelical Outpost links to this post on how to read a lot of books in a short time. John Barach speaks up on behalf of slow reading. It surprises some people when I tell them, but I slow-read most books, principally because I am of the conviction that the quality of one’s reading is more important than the quantity. The best books are to be savoured. I also slow read many of the worst books, as I feel duty bound to ensure that I understand someone very well before I strongly disagree with them. I also write lots of comments in the margins of my books and underline many sections, which slows down the reading process considerably. ***John Piper and Ligon Duncan speak on the subject of ‘The Challenge of the New Perspective to Biblical Justification’ on the Albert Mohler Radio Program. ***Some facts about the top 1000 books found in libraries [HT: Tim Challies]. ***Josh, the fearsome Lutheran pirate, writes in defence of women’s ordination (don’t worry, he is not seriously advocating the position). ***Mark Whittinghill alerts us to a new posthumous Tolkien book. It should be released in under a month. ***Michael Spencer links to a list of D.A. Carson MP3s. ***Lifehacker tells us how to cure hiccups with sugar and gives a guide to power-napping. ***There is a new Youtube channel dedicated to material about the Archbishop of Canterbury. The first video contains the archbishop’s reflections on the slave pits in Zanzibar. ***Also in the world of Youtube, the Youtube Video Awards have been announced. ***Why models don’t smile and 101 great posting ideas [HT: The Evangelical Outpost]. […]

  5. More Links | Alastair's Adversaria Says:

    […] Evangelical Outpost links to this post on how to read a lot of books in a short time. John Barach speaks up on behalf of slow reading. It surprises some people when I tell them, but I slow-read most books, principally because I am of […]

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