How to master the art of reading.
I decided to Google “how to read” the other day.
I know what you’re thinking.
That’s...an odd thing to search...
And you’d be right. It is a weird thing to actively decide to do a Google search for (though I’m apparently just one of 18,000 people who do the same search every month).
After all, as a cardiologist-turned-entrepreneur, you’d hope that I figured out how to read a while ago (spoiler alert: I did.)
So what inspired me to Google such a random (and seemingly unnecessary) question?
William Osler, the father of modern medicine.
I came across a quote of his, “Start at once a bedside library and spend the last half hour of the day in communion with the saints of humanity”, and began to reflect on Osler’s relationship with books. Not only was he a medical prodigy, he was also known for being very well-read. So knowledgeable was he, that Osler could hold his own in debates covering topics across the humanities with experts who specialized in those fields.
This got me wondering. How does a man–who has the same 24 hours in the day as the rest of us and who, by his own account, was not a genius or in possession of mental abilities beyond those of his colleagues–master disciplines that are completely removed from his own domain of expertise?
Thankfully, he left us a few clues to figure that out. And to boil it down for you, that ability came down to two very important habits–reading voraciously and understanding deeply. Not exactly a secret, right? So why isn’t every doctor walking around quoting Shakespeare and debating Clustering Illusion Theory?
Because knowing what to do isn’t enough. You need to know how.
The art of thinking can be broken down into two, component skills–learning how to read effectively and learning how to learn (which I’ll cover in a later post).
This brings us back to my Google search.
How to read. Well.
Good reading is about more than simply identifying words on a page. The skill of reading well starts the moment you choose a book and ends the moment you practically apply the advice it contains. Not only are there various levels of reading (from systematic skimming and speed reading through to inspectional reading) and different types of reading (practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science, philosophy etc.), there are also different ways to read to make the whole process way more efficient. Ultimately, reading (for the purpose of learning–reading for pleasure is another game entirely) is a subtle balance between reading as fast as you can whilst retaining as much as you can.
Obviously, the more you read, the more knowledge you gain access to. As physicians, we’ve read millions upon millions of words throughout our careers. Most of us are pretty darn good at dissecting a body of information. But there’s always room to improve.
Improvement in this context is learning how to read faster and comprehend more.
As I discovered through my cursory Google search, there are literally millions of articles on how to read faster and the techniques you can use to do so. Most techniques are variations of the same core concepts: chunk words together, use your peripheral vision, don’t sub-vocalise and never re-read the same sentence twice.
Chunking & peripheral vision
To read faster, you need to digest more words in less time. To do this you need to focus on what your eyes are doing. Most people can scan in chunks of 3-5 words. Rather than reading each word individually, jump from one chunk of words to the next chunk of words and as you progress, learn to expand your peripheral vision over time so that you eventually can read 1 or even 2 sentences in one glance. High-level speed-readers can eventually get to a level where they can even read an entire page in less than a few seconds by training their peripheral vision to do so (the next section will talk about how to actually retain the information in that one glance). A great tool to get you started on this is Spreeder.
Subvocalizing is the practise of reading in your head. We do it without realizing we’re doing it and it can be a tough habit to crack. Subvocalizing automatically slows down your reading because you naturally limit your reading speed to the speed at which you subvocalize
(which is obviously much slower than the speed at which you can comprehend). Practise reading without the voice in your head reading along too. Again, as you practise, this gets easier.
Tim Ferriss, the author of 4-Hour Work Week, calls the practise of going back to re-read sentences, regression. This significantly slows your reading down. As you read, especially when you’re reading a book for the first time, you want to understand the big picture as quickly as possible and then focus on the details. Regressing keeps you stuck in the details and stops you from progressing as fast as you can. This doesn’t neatly apply to something like a medical research paper though even here, it pays off to read it the first time just to get the big picture then dive into details later. Resist the urge to reread and your reading speed will soar.
It’s all well and good to read faster but what’s the point if you don’t comprehend any of it? Here are some ways to improve your ability to grasp the concepts in a book whilst simultaneously doubling or even quadrupling your reading speed.
Preview and plan
You know the saying, success is 90% preparation and 10% perspiration? This applies to reading. Before you start a book, take the time to study the table of contents and skim through the book very quickly to get a feel for it. Just like watching a film trailer gives you context and expectation, so too does this pre-reading step. Work out what question the book is trying to answer (and what question YOU are trying to answer) and keep that in mind as you begin to read. The 80/20 rule states that 20% of effort produces 80% of results (and the opposite is also true). Knowing what you want to get out of a book before you begin will help you laser-focus on that 20% so you get 80% of what you need in way less reading time.
iPhones are the enemy of good reading. Getting interrupted by a group WhatsApp message when you’re trying to learn about Roman history is always going to end badly. This one is obvious but get rid of distractions as you read and practise mindfulness as you start your journey through the book. When you feel your concentration moving away from the words on the page, gently bring it back. Keep a notepad on you to jot down urgent thoughts that come up (and interesting points in the book) to help you stay on task.
Remember the storybooks we used to read as kids (and still do to our own)? There’s a reason they have pictures in them. The human mind, at its most basic level, is enthralled by images and visual representations of meaning. We spent most of human history communicating through visual characters (think cave drawings, hieroglyphs etc.) and forced our brains to think in alphabetical form. We learn best (and comprehend faster) when we can see an idea playing out before us. As you read, try to focus on the meaning rather than the words. Practise your muscle of imagination and learn to quickly construct visual representations of what you’re reading as you read them. Many memory masters (such as Tony Buzan, the father of mind maps) use this method to help them speed-read and build vivid worlds from the books they read inside their minds.
This is a very, very short list of techniques you can use to boost your ability to read more and understand more of what you read. I hope it didn't take too long!