Do You Wish You Could Read Faster?

Four Reasons to Slow Down

Cut out all the time between plays, and you can watch all the action of a nine-inning baseball game in about 18 minutes. Do the same with the average football game, and your total viewing time is only 11 minutes.

Sounds efficient, but is it all just the same? Is “speed watching” anywhere close to experiencing the ups and downs of the contest over three hours? Would a real baseball enthusiast be satisfied to “speed watch” Game 7 of last year’s World Series, or an avid football fan Clemson’s last-second win over Alabama, or the Patriots’ historic come-from-behind victory in the last Super Bowl?

Collapse whole games into just wall-to-wall action, and you may quickly see what happened, and download the basic data, but you won’t experience the emotional significance of each moment. You will end up missing the vital tension and resolution of those critical plays where everything’s on the line. You’ll forfeit the fullest enjoyment of the game, and miss the heart of what has made the sport so popular and powerful.

Join the Slow Movement

I’m generally a slow reader, not because I couldn’t speed myself up in some measure, but because I want to enjoy reading, and genuinely profit from it. I want to be changed by what I read. I’m not typically looking just to run new data between my ears, but as a rule, I want to feel the emotional significance of each moment, and let it have its full effect.

I realize the Information Age isn’t slowing us down, but subtly and constantly pressuring us to speed up. As we browse, surf, and scroll, we’re training ourselves to quickly see new facts and then look for the next figures, rather than feel the weight of what we read.

So, consider slowing down with me. I’m not saying only read slow. It’s good to develop different speeds for different types of content and different goals. I’m simply waving a little flag for developing your slow gear, when all around you is saying, “Faster!” I won’t pretend every Christian should do it this way. I’m thankful others have different callings and capabilities. But here are four modest pieces of advice for Christian reading that doesn’t miss the heart.

1. Enjoy the benefits of reading slow.

Those of us who are simply slower readers may feel it as a weakness, but what if we realized that reading slowly isn’t necessarily a handicap, and that there are benefits? John Piper confesses his slowness as a reader, and does his level best to capitalize on it. This vision alone may be enough to make an able “speed-reader” take intentional steps to develop his slow gear:

I read slowly — about as fast as I speak. Many people read five or ten times faster than I do. I tried for years to overcome this weakness, with special classes and books and techniques. After about two decades of bemoaning this weakness (from age 17 to 37 or so), I saw there would be no change. This is one reason I left college teaching and the academic life. I knew I could never be what scholars ought to be: widely read.

What did it mean for me to identify and exploit this weakness? It meant first that I accept this as God’s design for my life. I will never read fast. It meant I stop complaining about it. It meant that I take my love for reading and do with it what I can for the glory of Christ. If I can only read slowly, I will do all I can to read deeply. I will exploit slowness. I will ask Jesus to show me more in reading little than many see in reading much. I will ask Jesus to magnify his power in making my slowness more fruitful than speed. (“Don’t Waste Your Weakness”)

Read deeply, and exploit your weakness.

2. Feel the freedom not to finish.

Some of us feel a kind of unspoken (and unexamined) pressure to finish any book we start. As if we’ve failed, and all our reading was in vain, if we don’t make it till the end. That is emphatically not the case. If the book’s bad, don’t waste any further time trudging through it. And even if it’s a good, helpful book, you do not have to finish to benefit. In fact, you may be squandering time if you’re finishing every book you start.

Call it the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of what most non-fiction books have to offer can be found in about 20 percent of their pages. So I feel no obligation to finish a book just because I started it. Without apology, I ransack books for as much as I can get in the time I have. I do a lot of dipping in, not a lot of cover-to-cover reading. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m reading fast. But I am on the lookout for the 20 percent.

3. Beware the losses of “speed-reading.”

I do wonder how much “speed-reading” really is a mirage. It sounds great, on the surface, to get more information in less time. But is reading really just about information? Is that our great need today — more data? Is “reading” a whole book in a stressful two hours really a better investment than truly enjoying a fifth of it in the same amount of time?

I have found that I typically get out of reading what I put into it. When I read quick and thin, I access more information, but I suspect it makes me a thin thinker. I may have a lot of facts and figures in my head, but will I know how they relate to each other, what they mean in the real world, and what wise applications to make? If I read slow and deeply, I won’t avail myself of all the data a speed-reader can take in, but I will learn, I hope, to think and feel deeply. I may have less information at my fingertips, but I’ll be better equipped to handle what I do have.

4. Read to be transformed, not just informed.

I’ve already said as much; now let the counsel be clear: learn to read for more than just information. Sure, there are times where we’re tackling a new subject, and we need to get our bearings in a lot of new data. Again, developing some ability to move quickly through text on occasion can be a helpful skill to have. But for me, I do not want this to be my habit or typical pace when I read.

I want my default to be slow and steady and engaged. Retention is one thing; transformation is another. Typically, I don’t read for mere data, and I don’t even read just to retain. I read to be changed for the better, for mine and for others’. Fast food may meet the need at times, but I don’t want to build a diet on it. When you read — whatever you read — seek to have it shape you in some new way, large or small, for Christ, whether the author intended it, or even despite the author’s designs.

Read Without Rushing

Whatever your regular reading pace, don’t jump in so quickly that you neglect to ask for God’s help. This is paramount when coming to Scripture, but even as we pause to open a book or read an article for spiritual nourishment, how much better might we be for it to explicitly ask our gracious heavenly Father to smile upon our efforts to be not only informed but transformed?

The heart that asks for God’s help in our reading — whether the content is Christian or not — is a heart he loves to bless. Such a posture will go a long way in finding the right pace for productive reading.