On reading

  • Posted on: 30 December 2015
  • By: govert

If the genie granted me one wish for a skill that I could send back to the past to my younger self, it would probably be: reading. Or more specifically: reading quickly and mastering the content properly. In the course of my life, I have acquired a bit of the skill of reading. The bad news is: there is no magic bullet that shoots knowledge into your head at no effort. The good news is: you can still learn a lot and get better; just think critically whether a tip really makes sense, because many of them do not.

Speed reading

All over the internet, you will find countless crash courses in various forms of speed reading. Most of them promise you the ability to apprehend complete pages in less than a minute. Let me introduce you very briefly to some of them, and then disillusion you. Save some very specific cases, they are useless for most kinds of reading.

One method is to take a paragraph of text, focus on its left upper corner, and move diagonally to its right lower corner slowly. Another method is focusing at the center of the paragraph, and moving around the center in ever growing circles, or actually spiralling out towards the edges of the paragraph. Yet another method is reading the fist line with close attention, reading the first words of the following lines until the penultimate, and read the last line carefully again.

True enough, in most cases you will have an idea of what the paragraph is about - sometimes even a good idea. But think about it. Text is organized as something in support of an argument. The text is organized as words in a particular order, and this order is essentialto the meaning the text is to convey. We are not too hasty if we conclude that any kind of reading that does not process words in the order they were written, is at least prone to missing out on some of the meaning consolidated in the text. Also, just think of the importance of small words such as 'not' and 'but': they modify the meaning of entire clauses, and overseeing them may have disastrous effect.

True enough, there are some situations in which these methods make some sense. Quite specifically, they work if you do not have to follow the argument completely. That is, if you just need to make sure that particular topics are (not) covered, if you only need a rough overview of how arguments are ordered, etc. Personally, I still believe that in this case only the diagonal and edge versions work. The excentric-circular style seems to me only useful if you have a photographic memory; in that case, you can memorise the text visually, but you would still need to process it intellectually afterwards. And then, I am sceptical about the existence of this kind of photographic memories.

Reading attentively - and quickly

Fortunately, not all hope is lost. There is a very simple technique that helps you speeding up your reading pace, and possibly even increase your ability to apprehend the material. The trick is: point with your finger, and use your hand to keep your pace steady. After getting used to this way of reading, you can step up the pace and increase your overall reading speed. Perhaps not a page in less than a minute, but you may very well reach a speed twice as high as your 'uncultivated' way of reading. Some call this yet another technique of speed reading, but I am of the opinion that it essentially differs from the techniques mentioned above, by still reading everything.

Pointing at your text has multiple advantages. First, the human eye tends to scatter over the field of sight, rather than proceeding by a monotonic movement over the lines of text. This effect is less if part of your body, i.c. your hand, is actively shaping the movement. Second, you may point with a pen or pencil, not your finger, and do sophisticated underlining immediately.


Regarding the all-academic habit of underlining: develop a sophisticated way of underlining. This is something you have to find out for yourself.The basics of my personal style are:

  • Concepts followed by their definition (or explanation) are to be surrounded by a (rectangular) box, after which the definition itself is underlined.
  • Structural words such as 'first', 'second', 'however' are surrounded by a (rounded) circle. This helps you navigating through the text quickly on a second reading. Mind that some authors use such words abundantly, in which case you better do not mark all of them, but only those that signal pivotal points in the argument. Also, some authors do not use them at all. In those cases, I write capital Roman numbers in the margins to mark the start of a new part of the argument.
  • Important oppositions ('On the one hand, ... on the other hand...', or sometimes just signalled by a word like 'however') as well as unformatted lists are marked with straight hooks: a small vertical line where one element starts, connected to underlining the first few words following.
  • Anything that is still important yet does not fall in any of these categories, may be underlined. Mind though, that if you are underlining entire paragraphs, you might be missing out on the central claim of that paragraph (if it has one, for in fact the author is to blame more often than this world deserves).
  • Points at which the author does not make sense (even if this is only in your perception) can be underlined with a wobbly line.
  • My annotation system contains numerous more symbols for elements including (but not limited to) problem definitions and main questions, conclusions, concepts that have not been explained earlier, hasty conclusions, unclear narrative connections etc. I will not explain those here, but suffice it to give you the advice to develop some system of your own.

If a text is important enough for your work, then reading it only once is generally not enough. An annotation system like the one above will help you to make the second run producing an additional layer of understanding, rather than unwittingly doing the whole thing over again.

Of course, this method is deeply rooted in my personal experience with the kind of text reading that is part of humanities and qualitative social sciences. Different disciplines need different styles of work, but even in entirely different fields, you might be able to take something from this explanation.