Reading is dead.
The nature of books has evolved. Society and technology have changed. Forcibly, our approach to reading has taken on new forms to accommodate a different way of life.
The question is: For better or worse?
Previously, I talked about the science behind reading books versus watching television, and how each medium affects our brains in various ways. Although books give us new ideas, spark discussions, and explore topics in detail, the same information can be delivered in a variety of formats. When it comes to exactly how we should absorbing books, the debate rages on.
Let’s take a look.
The Effectiveness of Speed Reading
Since the 1950s, speed reading has been touted as an effective way to get through reading material quickly. Scientists, psychologists, and teachers have come up with methods to increase reading speed, whether through manual tools or visual movements.
At the World Championship Speed Reading Competition, top contestants can reach 1,000 to 2,000 words per minute. Six-time champion Anne Jones reached 4,200 words per minute at one point.
Those rates seem phenomenal compared to the average adult’s 300 words per minute. So then, what types of strategies are speed readers using?
Here are four common methods:
1. Skimming involves quickly going through passages to find the main points. Instead of combing each word carefully, you go over first and last paragraphs, headings, and similar cues to find key ideas. Scanning, a similar method, involves running your eyes down the text to find certain words and phrases.
2. Meta guiding uses a pointer, such as your index finger or a pen, to guide your eyes along the lines of text. A pointer helps your eyes move horizontally, focusing on the word that you should be reading.
3. Vision span method uses the span of human eyesight to read words in batches. Readers focus their eyesight on one central word, and then use their peripheral vision to see adjacent words. By relying on our peripherals, it’s believed that we can read about five words at once.
4. Rapid serial visual representation (RSVP) is a more recent technique where an electronic reading system displays words one at a time. You can choose the speed at which the words show up on the screen.
While many readers stand by these methods, they’re not without controversies. Skimming means that you lose out on the details of a piece. On the other hand, preliminary skimming and scanning can help you to quickly hone in on certain topics, and then read those passages in greater detail.
In the comprehensive book Psychology of Reading, Keith Rayner dismisses speed reading techniques. He explains that we’re constrained by the anatomy of our eyes and the ability of our brains to process information. While some techniques aim to eliminate the process of sounding words in our head to save time (otherwise known as subvocalization), Rayner states that our memory and comprehension levels decrease dramatically.
As for the top speed reading contestants at the world championships, their comprehension rates tend to hover around 50 percent. While Anne Jones’s 4,200 words per minute rate is impressive, her comprehension was at 67 percent, and she had been exposed to the material before.
Regardless of which reading method you use, the evidence points towards the fact that speed comes at the sacrifice of understanding.
Depending on what you’re reading, this might not necessarily be a bad thing. If you’re trying to get through a dry piece to capture a few key points, skimming makes sense. The RSVP method can work if you’re going through a short piece that’s easy to understand. Personally, I like using a pen to guide my eyes along the text.
But if you’re going through a difficult book or one that you want to savor and reflect on, it probably doesn’t make sense to use methods that involve skipping or plowing through the material as fast as possible.
Choosing the Format You Want to Read In
A long time ago, there was only one option available: the traditional paper book. Nowadays, we can choose to read, watch, or listen to books. While there’s the luxury of options, new questions arise, such as: How should we read a book? Is one format superior to the other?
We’ll look first at traditional books, then e-books, and finally, audiobooks.
According to research, paper books have certain advantages over other formats. For one, readers have a better sense of progression when they can physically flip through pages. This progression also contributes to greater memory retention. Also, paper books act as effective sleeping aids, since they don’t emit the blue light that electronic devices do.
The other advantage to traditional books is a more personal preference. Some people like the feeling of paper. The pulpy smell, the weighty feeling, and the ability to flip through the pages enhance the reading experience. The drawback behind paper books, though, is that they’re often heavier and more inconvenient to carry around than other types of reading formats.
The greatest advantage e-books offer is convenience. Whether you carry one book or a hundred makes no difference in weight. This is useful for traveling, especially if you want more reading options. E-books also provide a sense familiarity, as we become accustomed to electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets.
The big issue around e-readers, however, is the blue light effect. In one study, researchers found that people who read light emitting e-readers took longer to fall asleep than those who read paper books. Readers who used devices such as tablets, laptops, smartphones, and backlit readers reduced their levels of melatonin, a hormone that increases in the evenings and induces sleepiness. As a result, they experienced low-quality sleep and were tired the next morning.
The good news is that e-ink readers, such as the Kindle Paperwhite, are an exception. These devices emit light towards the screen to cast a glow, rather than directly shining a light towards the reader’s eyes. The resulting effect is similar to a lamp shining onto a paper book.
There is some skepticism behind audio, as some people feel that it doesn’t provide the same level of immersion as reading. A study notes that you can absorb information almost as well through audio as reading (whether they’re fully equal is another topic of debate). In some cases, the narrator’s tone can even help listeners to better understand the meaning behind texts.
The issue with audio, though, is that humans are prone to multi-tasking. If you’re typing up an email or cooking a meal while listening to the narrator, the message can become lost. Personally, I like using audiobooks when I’m less likely to be distracted, such as when waiting around or going for a walk. If you enjoy listening to audiobooks as well, try Audible. You get 2 free audiobooks when you sign up and a 30-day trial.
Lately, speeding through audiobooks has become popular. Some people zip through a book at 2x, or sometimes even 3x the regular speed. While they claim that no information is lost, should we be approaching material this way?
A book is not simply an open box waiting to be checked off. Going through a book is an experience – one that requires absorbing the material, reflecting on it, and coming out having learned something new. Similar to how creative moments happen during quiet periods, our insights from books happen during periodic pauses.
The State of Reading Today
Given the boom in e-readers, smartphones, and electronic devices in general, it shouldn’t be a surprise that people are resorting to reading in different ways. As information goes digital, books have become easier to access.
However, over things can be accessed easily as well. Videos are available on-demand. People can chat with friends across the world. Considering the countless options available at our fingertips, are books really more enticing than before?
According to one survey in Japan, the longer people spent on their smartphones, the less time they spent reading books. Overall, 53 percent of respondents did not read a single book in the last month, consistent with rates in the previous five years.
On a positive note, research has found an increase in reading from 17 to 21 percent after a holiday season where tablets and e-readers were popular gift choices. Around 43 percent of American adults have consumed long-form content in the past year, whether it’s books, journals, or articles. The average e-reader, specifically, has read 24 books in the past 12 months, while a non-e-book reader has read 15 books.
The places where people read books have changed as well. People are squeezing in bits of reading whenever they have a moment to spare, such as on the daily commute or in between tasks. Increasingly, people are reading while watching television or surfing the computer.
Although people are increasingly reading in short spurts, the benefits from “deep reading” are lost in the process. Reading in long periods helps the reader to enter a state similar to a hypnotic trance, in which the experience is most enjoyable. Interestingly, the reading rate actually slows down. In this state, the reader quickly decodes words while keeping a gradual pace, heightening the understanding and relationship between author and reader.
How to Read in a Changing Society
Ideally, we would be able to read uninterrupted for hours at a time, under soft lighting, and free of all distractions. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that luxury on a daily basis.
So how can we make the most out of what we read? Here are four solutions:
1. Choose different reading pieces for different occasions.
Reading only when you have long, empty periods to spare can be difficult. We squeeze in books whenever we can, between work and relaxation. These factors make it hard to fully immerse ourselves.
It makes sense, then, to categorize reading material according to your place and time. For instance, articles and light reads can be reserved for short periods. Books that require less focus can be listened to in audio format. Heavy reading material can be saved for those moments when you have long stretches of free time.
2. Incorporate reading into your daily habit.
Since I started making reading books a daily habit, I’ve been able to:
- Improve my creativity levels.
- Apply knowledge gained to my work.
- Discover new topics and interests.
- Explore ideas from a different perspective.
- Gain greater empathy and understanding towards people and situations.
- Have something enjoyable to look forward to.
- Create a sense of stability and continuity on a daily basis.
- De-stress and unwind, increasing quality of sleep.
Optimal reading times include early in the morning, or right before sleep. Of course, you can fit in reading whenever, but I find these two times perfect for starting and ending the day.
An easy way to begin this habit is by putting a book on your bedside table so that it’s one of the first things you see after waking up and before going to sleep. If you’re rusty on the reading, choosing a light, fun read can is an effective way to ease yourself into picking up a book.
3. Share your reads with others.
After watching the latest episode of your favorite show, have you felt the need to share your thoughts and opinions with fellow watchers? If so, why should books be any different?
If you just finished reading a book you enjoyed, share it with someone who might like it as well (here’s a list of books I like). And if someone with similar tastes recommends a book to you, why not check it out?
Going through similar experiences and bonding through books helps you become closer with others, creating a similar feeling to traveling together or watching the same film. A shared discussion can also help you to better understand and appreciate what you read.
4. Reflect on your reading.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t like to simply zip through a book, check it off, and move onto the next one. When I do that, I find that I lose out on the implications behind the work. Instead, I use a few methods to absorb the material, including:
- Jotting notes: If there are some interesting facts in the book, I’ll highlight them, make some annotations, or copy down notable paragraphs.
- Write an article: Sometimes, I’ll write an article describing the events that happened in a book, along with my reflections and main takeaways. My piece about a North Korean prisoner is an example.
- See an adaptation: Popular novels often have film adaptations. I like to check out films that are based off novels to compare my interpretation with someone else’s, relive key events, and enjoy the work in a different medium.
Making Way for a New Form of Reading
Although some still resort to old-fashioned paper books, the traditional format is making way for a different style of reading. We’re carrying hundreds of books electronically. We’re listening to stories. We’re watching events unfold on screen.
Not only is the form changing, but so is our approach.
We’re increasingly cutting our activities into small segments, rushing to finish what we do, or trying to do everything at once. While it’s almost impossible to push back against the tides of time, it’s up to us to find methods to adapt and thrive in periods of change, both in reading and other facets of life.
Reading resources mentioned:
Kindle Paperwhite – Pack lighter and carry your favorite books and audiobooks anywhere you go.
Audible – Get 2 free audiobooks by signing up. Try for free for 30 days.