Chapter 4 – The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading (part 2 of 2)

ON READING SPEEDS

Our point is really very simple. Many books are hardly worth even skimming; some should be read quickly; and a few should be read at a rate, usually quite slow, that allows for complete comprehension.

With regard to rates of reading, then, the ideal is not merely to be able to read faster, but to be able to read at different speeds – and to know when the different speeds are appropriate. Inspectional reading is accomplished quickly, but that is not only because you read faster, although in fact you do; it is also because you read less of a book when you give it an inspectional reading, and because you read it in a different way, with different goals in mind.  Analytical reading is ordinarily much slower than inspectional reading, but even when you are giving a book an analytical reading, you should not read all of it at the same rate of speed. Every book, no matter how difficult, contains interstitial material that can be and should be read quickly; and every good book also contains matter that is difficult and should be read very slowly.

FIXATIONS AND REGRESSIONS

Speed reading courses properly make much of the discovery that most people continue to sub-vocalize for years after they are first taught to read. Films of eye movements, furthermore, show that the eyes of young or untrained readers “fixate” as many as five or six times in the course of each line that is read. (The eye is blind while it moves; it can only see when it stops) … Even worse than that, the eyes of incompetent readers regress as often as once every two or three lines – that is, they return to phrases or sentences previously read.

All of these habits are wasteful and obviously cut down reading speed. They are wasteful because the mind, unlike the eye, does not need to “read” only a word or short phrase a time. The mind, that astounding instrument, can grasp a sentence or even a paragraph at a “glance” – if only the eyes will provide it with the information it needs. … Once it is done, the student can read as fast as his mind will let him, not as slow as his eyes make him.

Place your thumb and first two fingers together. Sweep this “pointer” across a line of type, a little faster than it is comfortable for your eyes to move. Force yourself to keep up with your hand. You will very soon be able to read the words as you follow your hand. Keep practicing this, and keep increasing the speed at which your hand moves, and before you know it you will have doubled or trebled your reading speed.

THE PROBLEM OF COMPREHENSION

But what exactly have you gained if you increase your reading speed significantly? It is true that you have saved time – but what about comprehension?

Concentration is another name for what we have called activity in reading. The good reader reads actively, with concentration.

But concentration alone does not really have much of an effect on comprehension, when that is properly understood. … This limited kind of comprehension, in fact, is nothing but the elementary ability to answer the question about a book or other reading material: “What does it say?”

To make this clearer, let us take an example of something to read. Let us take the Declaration of Independence. … It occupies less than three pages when printed. How fast should you read it?

The second paragraph of the Declaration ends with the sentence: “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” The following two pages of “facts,” can be read quickly.  It is not necessary to gain more than a general idea of the kind of facts that Jefferson is citing, unless, of course, you are a scholar concerned with the historical circumstances in which he wrote. Even the last paragraph … can be read quickly. This is a rhetorical flourish, and it deserves what mere rhetoric always deserves. But the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence require more than a first rapid reading.

We doubt there is anyone who can read those first two paragraphs at a rate much faster than 20 words a minute. Indeed, individual words in the famous second paragraph – words like “inalienable,” “rights,” “liberty,” “happiness,” “consent,” “just powers” – are worth dwelling over, puzzling about, considering at length. Properly read, for full comprehension, those first two paragraphs of the Declaration might require days, or weeks, or even years.

The problem of speed reading, then, is the problem of comprehension. Practically, this comes down to defining comprehension at levels beyond the elementary.  It is worth emphasizing, therefore, that it is precisely comprehension in reading that this book seeks to improve. You cannot comprehend a book without reading it analytically.

SUMMARY OF INSPECTIONAL READING

Every book should be read no more slowly that it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.

Skimming or pre-reading a book is always a good idea; it is necessary when you do not know whether the book you have in hand is worth reading carefully.

Finally, do not try to understand every word or page of a difficult book the first time through.

However, you should keep in mind during our discussion of the third level of reading – analytical reading – that inspectional reading serves an important function at that level, too. The two stages of inspectional reading can both be thought of as anticipations of steps that the reader takes when he reads analytically.