Sunday, 8 July 2007

Thoughts on Speed Reading

On Friday, I attended an all-day workshop on speed reading, sponsored by the university for all postgrad students. I'm not quite sure how I felt about it. I think some of the techniques we learned can be useful, certainly, but much of it tasted like little more than snake oil. The session was from 9 to 5, so I will only give a brief overview.

Basically, we were told that with a little practice, we should be reading at a rate of over 1000 words/minute - about 3 1/2 pages a minute, which is several lines of text every second - with near full comprehension. Now, presumably this would take a lot of practice, so I don't want to make any broad generalizations, but, what is the saying? Something like, 'if it sounds too good to be true...'

We were asked to bring unread academic material and a novel. I brought The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks. Banks' books are quite different from nearly any other book I've read. They are classed with science fiction, but this is not the neatest of fits. Without giving anything away, a common theme in the books is inverting the readers' sense of normalcy, in terms of time, space, and culture, and philosophy, all executed with incredible creativity. (The cover is purty too!) The instructor demonstrated the speed reading technique by reading from the first page of my book.

So you know, this is the first paragraph of the book:

I have a story to tell you. It has many beginning, and perhaps one ending. Perhaps not. Beginning and endings are contingent things anyway; inventions, devices. Where does any story really begin? There is always context, always an encompassingly greater epic, always something before the described events, unless we are to start every story with, 'BANG! Expand! Sssss...' then itemise the whole subsequent history of the universe before settling down, at last, to the particular tale in question. Similarly, no ending is final, unless it is the ending of all things...

She took my book and 'read' the first page in about 1 second. This was her analysis of the book: "This book is not about characters, it is all about the action! Right from the first page there is an explosion, it even says 'BANG!' and you can tell it is going to be a page-turner all the way through." Um... No.

Although I could write a much longer post on my thoughts of this session (and I've thought about it a lot), the instructor's analysis of my book really says it all. Woody Allen made a joke with the same point: "I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia."

To be sure, there is a definite advantage in being able to read a little more quickly - and the session did help me in this - but I said a little more quickly, not impossibly more quickly. The issue that irked me the most was the attitude that super-fast reading was the only way to read, and that reading at slow (e.g., normal) rates is never appropriate - whether for pleasure reading or heavy academic material. I got the sense that the instructor was profoundly unaware of how one reads research articles - and that 'reading' several lines of methodology or statistical results every second is not desirable, at least not if you want to know what it means. The instructor normally teaches business managers (and was one previously - now she runs workshops and writes management books), and I'm not sure she appreciated how different the styles and needs are between aspiring academics pursuing original avenues of research and business managers who seek to maximize the speed at which everything is done. I think the value of the workshop would have been more appreciable if the approach had been more holistic, the needs of postgrad students were differentiated from CEOs, and the claims of speed reading benefits had been more research-based rather than like a hard sales pitch.

I found a few articles on Slate that confirm my thoughts on speed reading. One and two.

1 comment:

Sita said...

Oh dear.. I fear our hero Ian M Banks would shudder in his sleep..