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December 13, 2006

Speed Reading

Interesting discussion on speed reading going on over at Megan and Tyler's pads. It occurred to me that I don't actually know how fast I read, so I took this handy test, which placed me in the 550-600 words-a-minute range. This test, conversely, gave me a bit under 500, with 100% comprehension, but their incentive is to make you feel slow, and they did so by packing the text with mathematical formulas. Which illustrates something important, actually: Reading speed, for me, has a strong inverse relationship with the density of the material. I'll fly through good fiction at the rate of a couple pages a minute. More serious nonfiction will take me a minute a page. Which doesn't sound like much, but ends up feeling really slow after, oh, twenty minutes.

Indeed, my real problem with nonfiction isn't the speed I read at -- there's nothing intrinsically wrong with spending 200-some minutes on a heavy book -- it's an inability to concentrate on it for more then 30 or 40 minutes at a time, and an unwillingness to put in the requisite number of 30 or 40 minute chunks. I don't really know how you fix that, but in lieu of little Matrix-style download ports in the back of our necks ("Whoa. I know the social transformation of American medicine!"), I'm open to suggestions. Meanwhile, comments are open for you to brag about your crushingly fast test scores.

December 13, 2006 | Permalink


700-750! All must bow before me! Actually, I have the same problem Ezra does with devoting time to reading, and I blame the internet. It seems that before the web, I was able to concentrate longer on a given text, whereas now the second my attention starts lagging, I want to click on to something else.

Posted by: William Burns | Dec 13, 2006 9:44:25 AM

I only read 350-400; it's very easy to cheat on these things. You really have to do the reading and then take a comprehension test.

And I blame blogging in particular. Reading similar articles from lots of sources is conducive to ADD. The best way to combat it is to find an hour or two without distractions—no roomates, no internets, no one you're interested in talking to—and read something substantial.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Dec 13, 2006 9:47:05 AM

I'm reminded of Woody Allen's line: As part of his old stand up routine, he said he'd speed-read War and Peace. His take-away: "It concerns Russia."

Posted by: Charlie Robb | Dec 13, 2006 9:48:47 AM

I concur about the distractions. I'll be dutifully reading a long post about the undue influence of the Saudi royal family over the Bush family when I notice one of the ads on the side of the page... Wow! Lower Mortgage Interest Rates! Sorry, I got distracted again. What was I saying?

Posted by: Andrew | Dec 13, 2006 10:05:30 AM

I don't know how fast I can read, but it doesn't matter to me because I read at speaking speed no matter what. Anything faster makes me feel like I'm taking it too quickly. Reading books is a lot like sex. Oh man, I'm a geek.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Dec 13, 2006 10:40:09 AM

Yeah, 550-600 per minute. It's actually a pretty good test, since Kennedy's speech is heavier than most fiction but lighter than a lot of nonfiction.

An old prof of mine said that when reading heavy, grad-level stuff, 50pp/min with comprehension is quite good. If I really work at it, I can do that rate, but only for an hour at a time, max, usually less. Of course, when I'm trying to read something that was written in another language, especially German, and then translated, my speed goes down even further. I guess if I learned German I could enjoy reading Jurgen Moltmann more.

Posted by: Stephen | Dec 13, 2006 10:47:15 AM


I finished the first test and thought the software was broken for about 10 seconds, then the box popped up and well, lets just say I am wayyy fast.

Plus the comprehension one 788 91%, If I didn't have to scroll down, I read 2 paragraphs twice.

Posted by: mickslam | Dec 13, 2006 10:48:49 AM

"it's an inability to concentrate on it for more then 30 or 40 minutes at a time"

I know you regularly mock tobacco users, Ezra, but a healthy ration of coffee and cigarettes would completely cure your problem.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 13, 2006 12:10:00 PM

You can get - in fact you can't avoid and you come to treasure - two 30-40 minute chunks per day if you move to the burbs and commute to and from work on mass transit.

Posted by: ostap | Dec 13, 2006 12:19:06 PM

Make that two 70 minute chunks for me (live in city, work in burbs), and you're right, you do indeed come to treasure the time.

Posted by: Horatio | Dec 13, 2006 12:46:49 PM

Off thread (but significant, and a relevent speed reading test for Ezra, given his interests in health care):

AP Report (via USA Today) on the plan that Oregon's US Senator Ron Wyden plans to announce today (12/13)

- Wyden's Press Release on the Healthy Americans Act. Note the six links at the end of the presser leading to more info, including a section by section explanation of the legislation, cost and coverage estimates, examples for employers and employees, etc.

The only thing I see that I'd disagree with is keeping the health insurance companies in the picture (via a pool) , but I fully understand the politics not trying to eliminate all of their businesses.

This could be the major new Democratic initiative on health care that the country clearly wants.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Dec 13, 2006 1:02:36 PM

Megan's solution works well for non-fiction: Figuring out what to skip. Skimming through material and then concentrating on what you're they to find out speeds things up markedly, as most non-fiction books are just good articles that have been fleshed out with a lot of filler.

Posted by: James Joyner | Dec 13, 2006 1:07:21 PM

I spend most of my non-internet reading time reading philosophy, which is really slow and whenever I start reading other stuff I'm kind of freaked out by how fast I go.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Dec 13, 2006 1:24:38 PM

I got 64% comprehension without reading the material at all.

Posted by: Mary Rosh | Dec 13, 2006 1:29:09 PM

Pre-coffee, 350-400. Post Coffee, 700-750...

Ezra, I "solve" your problem by having several books (all on different subjects) open at once, and doing a chapter from each in turn (or more if the pacing is good). I mean, I find that if I try to read more than one subject in say "The Winner's Curse" (excellent reco, BTW) at a sitting, I start to mix my ultimatum games with my prisoner's dilemmas, dogs and cats living together, mass-hysteria...

Posted by: Pooh | Dec 13, 2006 1:42:03 PM

I got 250-300 on the first test, 207 on the second. I find nonfiction and literature I'm slower reading than modern fiction (provided it's fun). For example, I've been reading The Naked and the Dead since July and I'm almost done.

I find what's worse for me when reading nonfiction - particularly when I was in history classes in college - is that when I saw something interesting, I'd stop reading for 10 minutes at a time and consider how this relates to other history I know. This trait makes me worse at history, but better at mathematics, my chosen field, because it helps me, when reading a paper, take a fuller intuition on what I'm reading about.

Posted by: Raznor | Dec 13, 2006 2:22:40 PM

The reading comprehension test was just a scam to get you to learn about thier software. I didn't do super great on the reading comprehension. I tend to skim a lot.

Posted by: joeo | Dec 13, 2006 3:14:46 PM

Suggestions? Practice. Read serious books only, and no blog posts or short, skimable journalism, for a month. Probably hard for someone in your professional context Petey's of course correct that Coffee and Cigarettes help, but (in the latter case) the cure may be worse than the disease.

Posted by: djw | Dec 13, 2006 3:15:15 PM

750-800 for the first test, 1138 wpm for the second at 83% comp. Eh. It could be better. I like how I still got the hard sell (buy ReadingSoft for your intellectually inferior relatives!!!).

Posted by: Glenn Fayard | Dec 13, 2006 3:39:36 PM

"Whoa. I know the social transformation of American medicine!"

I think I hurt myself laughing.

And about 450 here. I, for one, welcome my faster reading overlords.

Posted by: NBarnes | Dec 13, 2006 4:13:03 PM

I am really not quite sure why fiction reading is supposed to be faster (i.e. presumably easier) than non-fiction. What sort of fiction are you guys reading?

If you are able to read Moby Dick faster than the last book on why George W. Bush is a bad president you really must be a miracle reader...

Most non fiction I have encountered is repetitive: you read the first one or two chapters and you can basically write the rest of the book yourself. Kevin Phillips with his footnotes and everything is heavier than most, but if you read the first chapter you have all the information you want to take away from it. So you can definitely skim through the rest (mainly to try and assess how sound his arguments are and how well documented his facts).

Posted by: zumbrunndbla | Dec 13, 2006 4:45:23 PM

Wait till you get older. I can't read 15 minutes of nonfiction without falling asleep.

Posted by: Paul | Dec 13, 2006 6:04:28 PM

Well, that's because Kevin Phillips is boring. Your reading speed asymptotically approaches zero, since you get bored and never finish his pap. Melville, by contrast, is a fabulous and engaging writer.

On "speed" I don't see the point. I have skinny little undergrad math texts that no McArdle in the world will understand at six pages a minute. This may explain that worthy's mathematics skills, come to think of it. The speedreading software page, by contrast, so bored me I simply clicked stop for a "wpm" in the thousands and guessed answers. I pulled 8/11. Given my level of respect for John Lott's intellect, I am deeply ashamed only to have beaten his sock puppet's equivalent score by 1.

What continues to puzzle me is what attracts young Ezra to McArdle's blogging. Is she really hot or something?

Posted by: wcw | Dec 13, 2006 6:28:26 PM

I took a summer speed reading course as a teenager, but if you're already a fast reader the gains aren't nearly as dramatic. I remember the materials saying that if a reader actually reads every word, the maximum rate is about 900wpm, based on studies of eye movement and the like. Skimming methods can increase the speed. The biggest single key to improving reading speed is of course comprehension, and the single best method for that is practice. (I was a teacher for a few years, and the biggest influence on someone's ability to read was how often his or her parents read to him or her when young. Vocabulary also affects comprehension, of course. The slowest readers are those who mouth the words as they read, which means they're going at something like 50-150wpm. If they can move beyond that habit, it makes a huge difference.)

As noted here and at Megan's and Tyler's, obviously the material makes a big difference. Poetry should be read aloud, or in one's head, as should some plays. I'm a fast reader, and certainly did plently of skimming in college. However, I also remember reading Lolita very slowly not only because I was taking detailed notes for a presentation, but because I was savoring the language. I went even slower for a Hayden White essay about objectivity in history because it was so dense and thought-provoking I found myself questioning, dissecting and reflecting on practically every sentence. A quick read would not have yielded nearly as much.

I had a great teacher who went over techniques to get the gist of a book when you didn't have enough time to read it It's much better for non-fiction, but his techniques were reading the title, the back of the book, the chapter titles, subsection titles, and the first and last paragraphs of sections. He could delve into key sections if he had the time, but he knew the "sub-thesis" and conclusion first.

I can be a bit ADD, and like Pooh, I tend to keep several books going at once. I also tend to alternate the heavy with the pulpy, and like zumbrunndbla, serious fiction probably takes me longer to read than non-fiction. Speed can be vastly overrated. It's pointless to try to race through Mrs. Dalloway, I'd think it silly to breeze through Plato without pauses, and I have older friends who've said re-reading King Lear over the course of a lifetime is fascinating. Regarding the news media and blogs, I find I breeze through most op-eds because they start with an assertion (unless I'm noting disingenuous arguments), straight news stories are normally quick, political news stories take longer as I weigh contrasting perspectives, and essays take the longest due to both length and depth. I think it all depends on why you're reading the piece in the first place.

Posted by: Batocchio | Dec 13, 2006 6:46:40 PM

I'm a 200-250 range and, like raznor, have difficulty sticking to a text--I free associate all over the place.

Put bluntly, I don't particularly like to read and am really put off (or intimidated) by extended exposition. I've read maybe a dozen books since grad school (40 years ago).

I understand that some people regard it as recreational or even productive. I mainly do it when there's really nothing else to do.

Most of my reading these days is on the web.

Posted by: BroD | Dec 13, 2006 8:28:53 PM

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