Ever tried speed reading? If you fancy having a go, paste this article into Spreeder.
Speed reading: isn’t that a gimmick for those who want to be over-productive, rat-racing, forever ramping up the pace of their lives?
Until yesterday, this was my assumption. Then laziness came upon me. I was reading this short story, Seth Fried’s ‘Mendelssohn’, and swearing internally at the computer screen. Not the story’s fault. All the finger-scrolling and eye-flicking across the unforgiving bright white expanse was getting to me: much more tiring than reading a physical book or a Kindle. So I found Spreeder and tried speed reading the second half.
Speed reading doesn’t allow for distraction: if your mind wanders, you skip half a sentence and get lost for a while. As someone with a restless mind, this was a demanding task, requiring me to zone in intentionally to the effort. To my surprise, when I later picked up a paperback and began reading ‘normally’, my focus was better than usual. I felt more present and calmly attentive to the task at hand.
Focus is rewarding, but distraction is equally important. Our old friend Distraction is the essence of poetry, a point made thoroughly and eloquently in this Poetry Off The Shelf podcast, ‘The Poet is Distracted’.
It was distraction in my exam revision period at the age of 15 that led me to start playing the acoustic guitar, an activity that has brought me great joy and fulfilment over the course of my life. It was an anxious breakdown four years ago – a major distraction from my career in headhunting – that gave me the space to revive my love of writing.
Not all distraction is made equal. Worrying or ruminating about aspects of our lives that make us fearful is an unwelcome habit that many of us struggle with. On the other hand, I might notice the sound of the raindrops on the windowsill and find it curious. This type of distraction is like fresh air because it emerges from an inner presence, a deep silence that we often crave.
Speed reading helped to unleash more of the ‘good’ kind of distraction. It was like taking my mind to the gym: my brain having had a proper workout, it was more stable, less worried, and – paradoxically – more willing to attend to the meaty distractions that come from that rooted place. A few moments ago, whilst enjoying my breakfast, I was distracted by the thought of writing an article about speed reading. I decided to change my mind’s focus and consciously attend to the distraction – and here we are!
There is an important drawback of speed reading, which is the lack of time it affords us for reflection and interpretation along the way. We are used to seeing large blocks of text at a time and moving on at our own pace, and this helps us to digest the work. I read the first half of ‘Mendelssohn’ without speed reading and found some nifty expressions, sharing some on my @siobhantebbs Twitter account. Whilst speed reading the second half was effective for my understanding of the story, it didn’t offer any breaks for laughter (I love allowing myself to laugh out loud while reading) or to consider what I’d read.
Some distraction is not only necessary to create, then, but also to process and interpret whatever you are taking in. I would venture that, when reading something we care about as a work of art, we need a bit of breathing space during the reading process itself. We already know that reading has a variety of positive effects on our memory, stress levels, and capacity for empathy – such as those outlined in Davis Allen’s article for JuxtaProse blog – (‘Bodies, Minds, and Literary Fiction’), for example. For these to have the freedom to blossom, it doesn’t seem enough to expect them to happen spontaneously after the event.
We can pause the speed reading mid-flow, but this is less than smooth as it takes a conscious physical effort and we are under pressure to take a quick decision: keep reading or stop! There is no middle ground. For this reason I would put forward the idea of speed reading as ‘training’, to be used perhaps more with news articles or similar texts that are more about transferring information than the exploration of ideas. This could then help bring a profound concentration to our reading of fiction and poetry.
Speed reading ‘training’ could help us focus more, not only on reading, but in other areas of life too. A few minutes of it has given me a delicious glimpse of this, and of how it feels to have a more generous faith in the unexpected paths sometimes taken by my mind.