How to Read More Books

How to Read More Books

I don’t consider myself a fast reader, though I must be someone’s definition of fast. I started reading early, and was always something of a bookworm as a child, but I was never one of those kids who could sit down a read a whole novel in a few hours. In other words, I don’t have any special powers or prodigy-level talents, and what reading speed I have managed to develop has only really emerged later in life, and only with effort. Last week I linked to an interview with columnist and reviewer Sarah Weinman, who is what I labeled a hyperspeed reader — someone capable of averaging more than a book a day. Those kinds of speeds are unobtainable by us mere mortals, I strongly suspect, but I also know that many people who wish they could read more — normal readers like me — really can do so, if they put in the effort. And my technique for reading more and faster basically boils down to that: trying hard to do so.

Although there is also a useful secret to reading more that I’ve learned the hard way, which I’ll impart at the end of this post . . .

But, basically, the way to read more books per year is to read more books per year — sounds a bit like advising would-be Olympians to go compete the Olympics, doesn’t it? — but in this case the goal and the means really are the same. It’s the same as the oft repeated advice to writers that the only way to learn writing is to write. Well, the only way to learn reading is to read, but of course the problem with that is everybody already does read. Or do they?

Again, it’s the same with writing — everyone writes emails, and in forums and chats and at work, and in a million other day-to-day tasks. It’s when a person confuses that with writing narratively or expositionally or in any other way that requires more than basic communication, that they run into a problem. The frustrated would-be writer then assumes that, since they already know how to write, there must be some secret technique that lets them turn a switch on and start producing best-sellers. I believe readers may sometimes think the same thing, since they know how to read — more than that, they experientially know what reading is — then there must be something ‘extra’ they need to reach for in order to pick up the pace of their reading.

If there is anything at all ‘extra’ needed for the process, I think it must be motivation. It is pleasant to read at one’s natural pace, just as it is relaxing to read unchallengening books written by people you agree with — entire lifetimes can be spent doing just that. And with so much else going on in our lives, how many of us really want to approach every book with maximum concentration, and to push ourselves into reading beyond what feels comfortable?

Well, my answer to that is, the sooner you do it, the sooner you can raise your natural reading speed so that your new comfort level is higher than the old one. And that right there reveals a big part of the way I think anyone should approach speedreading — it is merely one part of a reader’s tool kit, not a complete change in reading habits.

Here is where I should mention that I don’t know the first thing about the practice of speedreading as it is taught — though in last week’s post I found out that fellow Black Gate blogger Ryan Harvey was himself a speedreading teacher, and I hope he’ll share his insight and correct my misapprehensions.  My own experience is purely from my own instinctive bibliophilic striving, and from partially remembered things I’ve read and heard about speedreading. And, while I did take a speedreading class in high school, I was so resistant to speeding up my reading at the time that I don’t think any of it sunk in. The need for speed only overtook me once I got old enough to really understand just how impossible it was to cram all the books I wanted to read into one lifetime — and my first breakthrough in the area came with the realization that not all books are the same.

Which means that not all books should be read at the same speed. Most of us know this already, but it pays to bring this largely instinctual understanding to the level of conscious deliberation — when you pick up a book, you should already have some idea at what speed you will read it. This is dependent on two things, the book itself — its density, familiarity, and purpose — and your own goals in reading it. No two readers should approach the same book in exactly the same way, and an awareness of what it is you need to get out of the book is critical to determining how you will read it.

Some of my approach to reading, too, comes from Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book, and to paraphrase one of their fundamental rules: you should always read a book as fast as the book allows. In other words, if you don’t have to read a particular book slowly to retain information or enjoy the author’s style, you should increase your reading speed to the point where to go any faster would be to lose the thread. Adherence to this simple rule should be seen as the basis for a program of increasing your reading speed.

And everyone has already done this, to some extent, when they learned to read. Even the slowest of literate adult readers can navigate a children’s book faster than a child, and nearly all children make this first leap beyond elementary text and a more complex form. A large part of this increase is in learning to recognize words and groups of words for their meaning divorced from their sounds — to dispense with the sounding out of words phonetically and to instead take them as a whole. Even once this leap is made, there is a larger gap between the phonetic and non-phonetic reading, which I think of as the difference between immature and mature readers.

An immature reader, who can be of any age, is one that still reads at more or less speaking speed — sounding the words out in their mind (Ryan pointed out that this is called the subvocalization barrier) . Not that this kind of reading is necessarily bad — in fact this is basically how many mature readers read poetry –but it is excruciatingly slow. While such readers may retain a great deal of what they read, perhaps even remembering entire passages with greater accuracy than a faster reader, they are operating at a great disadvantage if it is the only way they know how to read. Making the leap to mature reader, which most of us reading this probably did sometime in childhood or early adolescence, means reading more and more material by understanding words, phrases, or larger units conceptually.

Last week I mentioned that, strangely enough, even as we do this (without going too fast) we still ‘hear’ the music of language — even to a greater extent than the word-by-word reader, who hears all the sounds in a word but might lose the symphony amongst the notes. But many of us, having gotten to this point, stop trying to read faster — afterall, reading is no longer taught to us past a certain age and most of our peers are reading at similar rates, so there is no incentive to read faster. Unless, of course, you want to read more. Some children discover this on their own, and keep pushing their ability to recognize groups of words and sentences and retain a high degree of reading comprehension. But at some point most of us settle at a comfortable plateau and stay there.

The web has changed that to some extent, as more and more people scan text rather than read it fully. But even web scanning — itself a useful tool and probably helpful in increasing your speed with other forms of reading — no where near approaches the actual process of sustained, concentrated reading. Reading can be a nearly-passive activity, but the best reading is active — and reading fast always so. For someone whose comfortable reading rate is somewhere just around the subvocalization barrier, approaching a book with an active desire to read it faster, and the focus to fight any laziness that finds you slipping back to your old speed, is the basic means whereby speed can be trained. Do this, and do it seriously, and you can make gains without actual training or study of speedreading techniques.

In fact, I’d suggest a person tries to push themselves before they ever take a class — something I’ve lately considered doing myself — as the basic awareness you get as a reader of the actual process of reading will no doubt assist in the learning of formal techniques at a future date. But the urge to push past the comfort plateau needs to come from the reader first and foremost, and practicing this is as easy as grabbing an appropriate book and training yourself to absorb larger units of meaning — phrases, sentences — at a faster rate, while avoiding subvocalization (‘saying’ the word in your mind).

Good practice books for this are novels you’d consider light reading, books you have already read, and non-fiction on a subject you are already familiar with. Most probably, early attempts at increasing speed with books of this sort will result in skimming, picking up stray words and letting your mind fill in the blanks. I think this phase is important to gaining proficiency with a higher rate of reading, and increased comprehension comes with more experience. That is when I’d recommend reading unfamiliar and more challenging material.

But this kind of faster reading is only part of the solution to reading more books a year. Since speedreading emphasizes information assimilation, is is better suited to only certain kinds of material — the things you want to know, but not necessarily experience. Sometimes this may be fiction of a certain kind, more often it will be non-fiction, but what it most certainly won’t be is a complex novel from a challenging author, or rhythmic verse, or even that big fat fantasy you want to curl up with while the world gets on without you. While I do think speedreading is a great way to increase even your comfortable reading speed, it is not supposed to be the one tool for all tasks.

Which means, alas, that there is a certain hard ceiling for how much real, quality reading we can do in any given hour, week, year, or lifetime. Sure, we can skim a book instead of reading it normally, but we are not getting the same experience. This article is entitled ‘How to Read More Books’ and not ‘How to Read Faster,’ because reading faster is only half the battle. Choosing which books to read and balancing reading time with other demands is the other.

Remember that revelation I had that not all books were the same? That didn’t occur to me when I had suddenly desired to read a book faster, but when I had decided to put a half-finished book down and turn my back on it. There was a time when I finished every book I started — and kept every book I read — and I think that’s true for a lot of people. But we grow past that need, and the idea that we can have time for everything, even things we aren’t really enjoying or benefiting from, is an unrealistic one. Read what’s worth reading* and forget the rest, even if it comes highly recommended, even if it was a gift from a loved one, and even if it is by an admired author — life’s too short.

Finally, the secret I mentioned at the top of this rather long post (feel your reading speed increasing yet?), the secret to reading more books, a secret hard-gained through trial and error. The secret is: there is no secret. That’s not a cop out, though it is perhaps a bit of showmanship on my part, but the truth is there is nothing that will change the basic demands of time that real reading expects of the reader. Knowing that there is no secret or shortcut to reading more forces you to prioritize your time — both the time spent reading and the time that could be spent reading.

Ultimately, it’s one’s goals and priorities that need adjusting as much as it is the speed at which one reads. If you’ve read this far, then I assume you are interested in books and reading as a phenomenon, and may very well be the same kind of reader as me. If that’s true, and you want to read more, expect also to sacrifice certain things in your day or week to the book gods. It’s a great start to always have a book with you, to grab what few extra minutes you have in the day, but you can always go further. Why not skip lunch? Why not skip a night out? Or a date? Or cancel your cable and sell you DVD collection? Or cut your phone and internet, change your address and eat only what you can scrape off the walls of your basement? Be as obsessed as you have to be, be crazier even than I am, just know that everything has a cost. If you really want to spend more time reading, you ultimately have to give up something else in life’s great temporal equation.

*but, if you’re like me, your defintions of ‘worth reading’ are comfortabley broad — my own litmus test is not some lofty notions of self-improvement, but rather of pure enjoyment.

BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.

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Ryan Harvey

Great post, Bill.

I do have a lot to say about speed reading techniques, but I’ve decided that it will actually take up enough space to warrant a post of my own, so I’ll put up “My Experiences As a Speed Reading Teacher” as my Tuesday posting so I can go in depth on technique, what I learned from my students, etc.

Yes, I think the one thing that holds me back from reading even more books in life is there are other things I don’t wish to sacrifice: writing time, dancing, my friends, my family, and watching movies featuring giant monsters smashing the crap out of minatures. Life is definitely a balancing equation.


Great post Bill, and I’m looking forward to Ryan’s on Tuesday.

I’ve tried to spend more time reading lately with some success. I often find myself analyzing the prose of a good book, which really slows me down. Perhaps if I push myself a little faster, I might be less tempted to stop and admire sentence structure. I suppose it might also stop as I become more confident in my writing.

[…] Bill Ward talks about reading more (in light of the 462 books per year recently being talked about. […]

[…] Ward recently posted two articles on “hyperspeed reading,” the first a reaction to columnist Sarah Weinman’s claim of reading 462 books in a year, and the second taking a deeper look into reading […]

[…] pertain to increasing one’s reading output. Both my post on keeping reading lists and “speed reading” focus on trying to get more read over time. I’ve also talked about reading ruts and […]

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