3 Ways to Finally Finish Ulysses

Speed reading for dummies – and rabbits!

In this post I’m going to go through a few speed reading solutions that I’ve tried over the last couple of years. Some are so fiddly that you may as well just read normally, and others will give you magical powers to read books faster than you have really ever wanted to.

1. Learn to Speed Read the Old Fashioned Way

There are a number of free, online courses to learn to speed read in the way nature intended (ie by learning a new skill that will last a lifetime). I’ve invested a couple of hours into a couple of these courses, and what I can tell you about them is this: proper speed reading is hard. I imagine learning the skill would be very useful, if you were the kind of person who could dedicate the months of time needed to learn it. Sadly, I am not that person. It reminds me a little of learning to touch type. I learned to touch type because I had a spare summer holidays and a typing program instead of proper computer games (I was a deprived child). Now, I know how to touch type, and the frustration of the learning experience is far behind me. None of the online courses are particularly fun, and the simple reason is that it’s not an easy thing to learn.

What these courses do give you, however, is a solid understanding of how speed reading works. Most people read the way we were taught to read, we sound out the words in our head. This is called ‘sub-vocalising’. The key to speed reading is learning to see a word and understand it without sub-vocalising it. And that’s pretty difficult.

2. An Easier Way

There are a number of iPhone and iPad apps for speed reading, most of which are utter rubbish. They crash, they lack the most rudimentary feature set, and ultimately fail at helping you get through your reading any faster than usual. Quickreader is the best of a bad lot. It’s basically a shortcut to real speed reading, the kind you have to work for, but requires very little effort. It’s technology-assisted proper speed reading. You can use any text file, or download one of the many free titles available through the app. The app then presents you with a screen (as below) and will highlight the passage you’re supposed to be reading for as long as you’re supposed to read it for. It forces you to move faster than you’re comfortable with, and by doing so teaches you to read faster. You can then test your reading speed in another part of the app. The upside is that it’s a good way to learn to speed read. The downside? It isn’t quite fast enough to be useful, and has none of the advantages of normal ebooks. You can’t search the text, look up a word in the dictionary or read it on another device.

I don’t know why you’d want to read A Room With A View at 800 words per minute. But if you want to you can.

3. Finishing Move

If you really want to get the job done, speed reading-wise, then use Zap Reader. Zap Reader requires no ability whatsoever, except the initial reading skill. The website works by flashing words at you at a rate you specify. You can copy and paste text into it from any other website, or from an ebook you have stored on your computer (so long as it allows you to copy text from it, which many DRM schemes do not allow). You can improve a lot with it if you use it frequently, by slowly increasing the speed and the ‘chunk’ size (the amount of words shown on the screen at any one time), but you can increase the speed pretty high from the get go. I recommend starting at about 400wpm with three words at a time, and slowly increasing it from there. If you’ve ever had to read something boring and long that you just want to finish and just don’t have the energy to sit down with the book – then give this a go. You can thank me later, lazy people. If you can be bothered.

Crush Ulysses – just as this long-haired gentleman is about to crush his muscular friend!

Speed Demon

A recent study by Useit.com has concluded that reading on an e-reading device is, on average, slower than reading a traditional book. The study used a Kindle, an iPad, a book and a PC for the study. The participants were given a comprehension test at the end to make sure all readers were understanding what they read, but were apparently no differences between formats for comprehension. Snip:

The iPad measured at 6.2% lower reading speed than the printed book, whereas the Kindle measured at 10.7% slower than print … Users felt that reading the printed book was more relaxing than using electronic devices. And they felt uncomfortable with the PC because it reminded them of work.

Aside from the fact that the study was only conducted on 24 people, and reasonable margins of error mean that they can’t say for sure which device is faster, what does a study of this kind mean for readers? Is the speed at which we read actually important to our choice of format? Personally, when I’m reading for relaxation, I don’t care how quickly or slowly I get through a book. But reading is kind of like chocolate cake. It’s excellent when you get to decide how much you eat, even if you sometimes overindulge and give yourself a stomach ache. However, if you were forced to eat six chocolate cakes in a row the experience is not as much of a treat. When I read for work I sometimes need to get through books as fast as humanly possible – without sacrificing my ability to understand what’s happening or work out whether what I’m reading is any good.

It’s a difficult balance to strike. I’m naturally a very slow reader, and tend to slow down the more absorbed I am. To get through something quickly, I need to constantly tell myself to move faster. It’s not a very pleasant experience. Nonetheless, it’s an experience that many people are looking for – sometimes we just need to absorb information as quickly as possible. As a format agnostic, I’ve looked at many ways to speed up my reading. The fastest I’ve found is to use a speed reading program. There are a number of paid software packages, but I prefer the web-based solutions, as you can get to them anywhere, and add any text you like by just copying and pasting in a web browser. Two good examples of this kind of thing are Zap Reader and Spreeder. Using these sites, I’ve sometimes reached speeds of around 700-800 words per minute reading, which is almost triple the average reading speed (most people read around 250-300 wpm). I can get through an average length book in an afternoon. However, there is a terrifying, brain-bending element to reading in this fashion. It feels a bit like downloading a new skill in The Matrix, and tends to give me a massive headache.

I know kung fu.

So, in the hunt for the fastest reading experience, in my next post I’ll be road testing a number of reading technologies  to see if I can balance speed with enjoyment. In the meantime, sound off in the comments and let me know whether you think speed is a plus or minus for you when it comes to reading a book.