Slow Reading

Sometime in the mid-seventies, my then-boyfriend John and I saw comedian Robert Klein perform at Carnegie Hall. I remember that our seats in this fabled auditorium were in my favored spot – middle, middle – but I don’t remember much about Klein’s performance. Except for this:

At one point he pretended to be a young surgeon who’d just breezed through med school, thanks to the Evelyn Wood speed-reading course he’d taken. Imaginary scalpel in hand, bending over his imaginary patient on the imaginary operating table, he hesitated, looked up at us in his audience and worried aloud:

“Now, was that the liver AND the spleen? Or [he paused], the liver OR the spleen?”

And here’s a related classic line from comedian Woody Allen: “I took a speed reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page, and I was able to read War and Peace in 20 minutes! It’s about Russia.”

These stories are both funny and sadly true, in my view. The sad fact is, as I see it, too many of us in this fast-paced world, besieged as we are by too much to read and always pressed for time, are reading too fast – skimming, really – and in the process missing the import of much of what we read.

Yesterday I read a fascinating article on this subject, titled “So Much to Read, So Little Time,” published by Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Vol. 17, No. 1), which begins with:

“The prospect of speed reading—reading at an increased speed without any loss of comprehension—has undeniable appeal. Speed reading has been an intriguing concept for decades, at least since Evelyn Wood introduced her Reading Dynamics training program in 1959. It has recently increased in popularity, with speed-reading apps and technologies being introduced for smartphones and digital devices….”

This scholarly article goes on to say, however:

“Our brief discussion of trade-offs between speed and comprehension suggests that a reader cannot ‘have his cake and eat it too,’ in the sense that comprehension must necessarily suffer if the reading process becomes more like skimming. Indeed, we will see there is little evidence for a unique behavior, such as speed reading, in which speed and comprehension are both high.”

Their conclusions: “Many people wish to read faster by finding a special form of reading in which they read more quickly with excellent comprehension, ideally without much effort or training. In this article, we have seen that there is no such magic bullet. There is a trade-off between speed and accuracy in reading, as there is in all forms of behavior.”

As my old friend Ron always says about life: “It’s all about trade-offs.”

But I can’t help but think that in this case, quickie, thoughtless, superficial reading – or not bothering to read at all — can be harmful to self or others. (“Oh, hell, let’s just go for the liver AND the spleen!”) Call me an old schoolmarm, since I am, in fact, a retired college English instructor, but from what I’ve observed on Facebook and seen on TV news, as well as elsewhere lately, too many people are not doing their reading homework. (Yet, like some of my former students, they expect a good grade, as if grades were free gifts).

They look at pictures, read blurbs or intros, then jump to often-wrong conclusions, as evidenced by their sometimes wildly off-base Facebook comments. Others, in their intellectual indolence, hang on to the inciteful words of a deranged demagogue who doesn’t read, to the potential detriment of all.

What to do, I wonder? Here’s a plan: Take a deep breath. Slow down. Hit the books. Read carefully. Think responsibly.

I’m reminded of the Slow Food movement that began after a man named Carlo Petrini and a group of activists held a demonstration on the intended site of a McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1986. At that time, I was embarking on my own, new, culinary career in Manhattan; and I assumed that “Slow Food” was simply a celebration of traditional dishes cooked “low and slow,” what we in the business then referred to as “Mama food.”

How wrong – or limited in my thinking — I was. In the decades since then the movement has evolved to embrace a comprehensive approach to food that recognizes “the strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics and culture,” according to their website (  Today Slow Food represents a global movement involving thousands of projects and millions of people in over 160 countries.

At this moment I’m imagining a Slow Reading movement that would inspire people all over the world to read more widely, carefully and thoughtfully, in order to make stronger connections between planet, people, politics and cultures. It’s a lofty fantasy, I know. But surely possible — and well worth considering.

Stock photo from Pixabay

For those who have taken the time to read this this far, I’d like to go one step further in making my case: Slow reading, like slow lovemaking, is simply altogether better. Time well spent.

20 thoughts on “Slow Reading”

  1. Per your point, I am currently re-writing a scene for our Shakespeare class at UCLA to “ speed things up and get to the point.” It is, of course, a bit of comedy. Shakespeare often uses several paragraphs to explain how someone is feeling, for example, so my rewrite will simply say, “ I hate the bastard. Let’s kill him”

    PS I never was a speed reader. Nor interested in becoming one. I did envy, however, those unique people who read at the speed of lightening and absorbed everything.

    1. Try tracking down and reading the whole scholarly article I referenced, Ted. The authors of it claim that readers who, as you say, “read at the speed of lightening and absorb everything” probably already knew the material beforehand. So they could just skim quickly to refresh their memories.

  2. I totally agree with you Bonnie. I used to speed read the multitude of documents I had to read when I worked. It was not always the right method especially if there was policy document. But lack of time meant I had to made a trade off! Now that I am retired I love reading and savouring my books, even sometimes rereading chapters or pages.

    1. Thank you, Ann, for your input. Great to hear from you! Yes, this is one of the unsung joys of retirement, I feel: being able to savor the books we didn’t have enough time to read when we were in the full-time workforce.

  3. Thanks, an interesting post and, um, a nice read. 🙂

    Depending on the goal and material, I find that skillful skimming can be far superior (more efficient) than reading. Few news articles, for example, are dense enough to benefit from reading instead of skimming. In the process of skimming, I find a few fragments worth a closer review to extract information relevant for me.

    Literature is a different matter.

    1. Thanks so much for your input, Glenn. Yes, skimming is a skill you’ve obviously perfected — which is admirable (and enviable). And, yes, it all depends on the material. I confess I’m a Lit major, so I have my biases…:-)

  4. Saborear indeed, a lovely word. So nice to hear you are well, Bonnie and to see notes from Kim as well. I am writing you from rainy England, aka. Plague Island, but it’s fine. Lovely enough and I’m enjoying the drizzle and the old stone buildings. Besides a quick greeting, I am writing to recommend to all the most important book I have slow read this year – or possibly ever. It is called The Invisible Rainbow, A History of Electricity and Life by Arthur Firstenberg, a fellow New Mexican, you might be pleased to know. It is long, but not nearly as long as it looks when it arrives in the post as it has over 160 pp of bibliography/notes! I don’t recommend slow reading the footnotes, but the book itself is worth every minute you give it, and more. Cuidadate, amiga.
    Saludos, Aly

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, querida! And thank you for the book recommendation. I, and I hope other WOW readers, will add it to my list. I’m slow-reading a terrific (and fat) book on the history of Mexico: FIRE & BLOOD, by T.R. Fehrenbach. I think you’d really appreciate it. Best wishes for your new life on “Plague Island”! 🙂

  5. I am one of those people whi thought I couldn’t read fast enough to get through my freshman year of college because I observed other people zipping ahead and piling up the books they’d read. So in the Evelyn Wood course I learned that sub vocalizing was the main thing that slowed me down. I was actually eating the words instead of only seeing them. As a poet, I discovered I needed sensual appetizing words in my daily diet and I needed to chew them slowly to get the nutrition they offered. So much of what I read online doesn’t have that much substance or sense appeal so a glancing look is all I give it. I also subscribe to the New Yorker magazine and devour it hungrily to keep my literary diet in balance.
    Thank you so much for bringing this subject up and encouraging slow reading. I am with you 100%.

    1. Thank YOU, Jean-Vi, for sharing your experience. I, too, was made to feel like a “slow learner” in school because I read slowly. (One lazy eye was a drag on the other.) Now I celebrate the fact that I slowly savor worthwhile books and articles when I read them.

  6. Dear Bon,

    I do believe there are some people capable of reading with speed and comprehension, but they are a very slim minority. When people tell me they have this ability, and I hear it often, I don’t believe them.
    Many young people have very poor reading skills and see reading as something to do as quickly as possible, so they can get on to the “important things.” All you can do is keep telling them that reading is the important thing.

    Thank you for another great post.


    1. Thank YOU, dear Paul, for your insights, as someone who is on the front lines trying to get students to READ. It really breaks my heart that (careful, thoughtful) reading has become so devalued. (SIGH)

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