How many books will you read before you die?

A close friend who reads A LOT of books recently unnerved me with some startling insight.

I’ve realised I literally haven’t got enough time left to get through all the books I want to read before I die

Jolted into action by such a morbid and logical comment, and with an ever-increasing reading list of my own, I decided to learn how to increase my reading speed for Weekly Challenge #17.

It’s a sobering though, but a quick estimation of how few books you read a year followed by a tally of how many books you want to read before it’s too late may well leave you in the same predicament. Why? Because there are more new books being published, they’re more aggressively marketed to us across more channels (I’m looking at you Tesco, Oprah et al) and most of us don’t set enough time aside for reading, nor are we particularly quick at the act of reading (in fact most people’s reading speeds stagnate in their early teenage years). Well that’s a massive pile of problems, and unless you’re able to do something crazy like THIS brilliant life experiment by Justin Miller to read 52 books in 52 weeks, you’re stuck with being very selective about what you read, and getting through that selective list as quickly and efficiently as you possibly can. Enter speed reading…

Speed reading resources

So where do you start if you want to improve your reading speed, and perhaps graduate to becoming a speed reader?

  • The Tim Ferriss approach to Speed Reading:I was heavily inspired by this great piece by Tim Ferriss on speed reading and accelerated reading, in which he claims to be able to increase your reading speed by a staggering amount through some simple exercises. He even claims to have significantly improved the reading speed of someone he met on a plane just by running through a few simple exercises. Now this I had to see…
  • The Speed Reading Champion: a friend pointed me at the website of Anne Jones, a speed reading enthusiast and champion in her own right, who gobbles books down at up to 4,500 words per minute! Anne offers courses (no use to me as I was in Colombia during this Weekly Challenge) and favours a technique formulated by Tony Buzan, using a marker to focus the eye and increase reading speeds. It’s clearly working for Anne, she read the new Dan Brown book in 40 minutes!
  • The Speed Reading website: Tim Ferriss’ speed reading exercises had a fairly practical approach but there are several websites that offer speed reading exercises as well. The best site I found was this one called Spreeder, which, although it doesn’t look crash hot, allows you to input any chunk of text, before feeding it back to you at a set words-per-minute reading speed.
  • Speed Reading apps: Like the websites, there are plenty of apps out there to choose from, along with specialist desktop software too. Having played the field a bit, I plumped for this free Speed Reading app Acceleread which offers a variety of speed reading exercises designed to attune your eyes and brain to faster words per minute through different fun, short exercises.
  • Books to help with Speed Reading: yep, you guessed it, there are loads of books out there too, and though I didn’t have time to properly explore this route during my Speed Reading Weekly Challenge, Tony Buzan’s tried and tested The Speed Reading Book looks worth a go and certainly worked for Speed Reading Champion Anne Jones.

Getting started with Speed Reading

  • Baseline speed: the first step is to benchmark your existing reading speed. This was Tim Ferriss’ advice too, so I started with his technique of counting the average number of words per line, then reading for a minute, counting the lines up at the end and hey presto, you gotta benchmark, and it turns out that mine was 259.Disgusted by my own reading speed mediocrity (259 wpm puts me firmly in the middle for adults), I decided to try a few different reading speed benchmarking testing techniques, first trying the test at readingsoft.com, which astoundingly gave me exactly the same speed of 259! Nothing if not consistent. Mindbluff have an interesting test which gave me a slightly higher wpm of 300, and staples.com, bizarrely, have their own test here, which gave me a speed of 312. Four different tests gave a solid average reading speed of 283 words per minute. Let the improvements commence…

Daily exercises

  • Trying the Tim Ferriss approach: as with many of Ferriss’ skills hacks, the results here were pretty astounding. Following barely 20 minutes of exercises, which focused mainly on reading at an uncomfortably high speed, increasing peripheral vision, and using a marker to diminish the backskipping and margin-dawdling that the eye indulges in, my comfortable, comprehensible reading speed was up by nearly 60% to 414 words per minute. Sure, my eyes felt like they were bleeding during the later exercises, but it clearly worked! With more practice, my speed would apparently improve further.
  • Trying the Spreeder website approach: buoyed by my success from the Tim Ferriss exercise, and having applied sleep and eye drops, I moved on to trying the online offering at Spreeder which focused on improving reading speeds by reducing the brain’s tendency to ‘play back’ each word, as if being spoken out loud. This process is called subvocalisation, and is a major barrier to increasing reading speed. Spreeder flashes up your words, line-by-line, at a pre-defined speed and line length which you set as fast as possible, to diminish the brain’s ability to subvocalise.Reading on a screen obviously felt much different to reading a book, but when you think about how much reading we now do online, it seemed as logical a practice-ground as any.I chose this famous speech by Nelson Mandela, pasted the text into the site, set a reading speed of 600 words per minute, utilised the ‘words per line’ function to try out my newfound peripheral vision (beginning with 4 words per line) and spent around 20 minutes trying the reading exercise. My comprehension, it has to be said, was probably very low indeed, and my eyes/brain hurt even more, but my ability to minimise subvocalisation by reading at speed was definitely there. Following this exercise I was able to go back to reading normal text at a ‘normal’ speed, and found myself up at around 450 words per minute. A marginal gain of 9% on Tim Ferriss, but I had only been at this for three days!
  • Trying the app: having tried the Tim Ferriss approach and the Spreeder online reading approach I spent the next couple of days with a structured set of exercises using the iPad speed reading app Acceleread. This used all of the principals I’d learned so far about backskipping, subvocalisation and peripheral vision, testing them in short, fun exercises, lasting 10 minutes per day. After 3 days, Acceleread was telling me my reading speed had actually regressed slightly to 415 words per minute. Perhaps this reflected me relaxing into the process a little and trying to learn rather than be competitive!
  • And finally…back to normal reading: throughout the week, before and after each of the exercises, I spent as much time as possible (which wasn’t that much: around 90 minutes a day or less) doing ‘normal’ reading. It felt like my eyes deserved it after the pain I’d been putting them through, plus it was good practice for gently applying some of the principals I’d learned.

So did I learn to Speed Read in a week?

To me, the results speak for themselves! I saw a 60% increase in my reading speed following the three sets of exercises detailed in this article. Incidentally, the speed reading tests I did after each session (using Acceleread) also examined comprehension, which remained steady throughout at around 75%, so I know I didn’t just cheat and read quickly to get my numbers up!

Acceleread had several more steps I could take, with further exercises and tests, and it’s something I can do anywhere on the iPad, so I’ve found myself doing a session a week since finishing the challenge, and I regularly find myself using a marker to read with when I want to increase my speed during ‘normal’ reading, so the principals of speed reading have definitely made an impression both on reading speed and style.

I hope this article helps you increase your own reading speed, let me know how it goes in the Comments below and keep an eye out for my next Weekly Challenge.