A student once asked Warren Buffet what he could do to prepare for a career in investing. “Read 500 pages like this every day,” Buffet responded, gesturing to the stack of publications he’d brought with him, “That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”
Since this was first reported in 2013, Buffet’s now-famous advice has become a fixture in American success lore. It’s been tucked into countless articles, most often to serve as proof that reading is a kind of intellectual superfood that can catapult us to Buffet-style billionaire status if only we pack enough of it into our diets. “If You Want to Be Like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Adopt Their Voracious Reading Habits,” urges one article.
This thinking is also reflected in a growing cultural push to read more efficiently. Over the past several years, there’s been a proliferation of articles, apps, and instructional YouTube videos promising to help you get through more books in less time: “How to Teach Yourself to Read an Entire Book in a Single Day”; “Five Tips for How to Read Faster without Losing Comprehension”; “How I Learned to Read 300 Percent Faster in 20 Minutes.” At times, this need-to-read has taken on an almost comical urgency. “Do you read fast enough to be successful?” asked Brett Nelson in Forbes.
Pros and cons of fast reading
As an avid reader with a degree in English, I have an almost fanatical appreciation for the value of reading, particularly when it comes to great literature. And I have no doubt that Warren Buffet’s advice is sound. But I think our cultural obsession with reading as much as possible as quickly as possible is at the very least misguided. It's not just that we read that's important, but how. And in my experience, there’s some value in taking it slow.
A growing body of research suggests that pushing ourselves to read at an unnaturally fast pace comes at a cost. Keith Rayner, a psychologist and expert on eye movement and cognition, insisted that because humans are anatomically and neurologically constrained, it’s not possible to read much more than 500 words per minute without sacrificing comprehension and retention. Unsurprisingly, one study found that while speed-reading trainees read faster than those without such training, they comprehended less. According to Rayner, tools designed to eliminate some of the physical demands of reading (such as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation, which is used in apps like Spritz) can overload our working memory, as “words come in faster than you can deal with them.” Likewise, speed-reading techniques that aim to eliminate subvocalization (the pronunciation in our head of every word we read) have been linked to reductions in understanding. In other words, time plays an important role in our ability to process and retain what we read.
But the benefit of reading isn’t just a matter of comprehension and memory. Reading is not a wholly passive process in which the goal is to simply upload all the knowledge a book contains and store it somewhere in your brain. It also affords the opportunity to wrestle with the material, to merge its insight and truth into your worldview or reflect on why you can’t. In other words, it's not just the literal books that give reading its value, but the act of reading itself. In the words of bibliophile and author Ryan Holiday, “Reading is like eating, sex, and meditation. . . . You’re not supposed to rush through it.”
If you haven’t already guessed, I am an incredibly slow reader—and not really by choice. Try as I might, I can’t seem to read anything without stopping to reread, highlight, take notes, or simply stare into space and think about what I’ve just read. This made keeping up with the English curriculum in college a constant, anxiety-inducing struggle, so much so that at one point I actually considered leaving the program. I think I would have left had it not been for a conversation with a professor about my performance in her writing workshop, a large portion of which was devoted to reading and discussing the work of established authors. “I think you might be the best reader in this class,” she told me. Her comment threw me off, not only because being the best reader in a writing class seemed a bit like a consolation prize, but also because of how much effort it took for me just to get through the reading material. This offhand observation helped me see that being a slow reader does not make you a bad reader. If anything, it helped me to engage with the text, rather than simply understand it.
There is a time and place for speed-reading or skimming. People read for a lot of different reasons—complete comprehension, retention, and reflection is not always the goal. But the point is that some of the value of reading a book is lost by rushing through it. And if that’s not the case—if there’s nothing to be gained by reading it carefully—then, in my view, there’s a good chance it’s not worth reading in the first place.