Read Slowly

Have you ever set a goal for how many books you want to read in a year? If so, you’re not alone. Many people set that goal and some even compete with each other to see who can read the most books. To achieve the goal or win the competition, a lot of people would read as fast as they can. Don’t understand what this paragraph is talking about? Just skip it, maybe I’ll know it after reading more. Not sure what the historical event mentioned in the book is about? Don’t bother with it, maybe I don’t need to know it. After all, finishing the book as quickly as I can is the most important thing, right?

Of course it’s not right. You’ve set a trap and fallen into it. Admittedly, some people can read quickly without compromising comprehension and retention, which I think is perfectly fine, although I insist that it depends on which book you are reading and how much you know about the book’s topic before reading, even if the art of speed-reading is mastered. However, if you cannot read fast for some books, don’t force yourself to finish them as quickly as possible, it will surely ruin your reading experience and you will gain little to nothing from the book. In this case, you should read slowly - at least slow enough so that you are able to understand what the book is talking about. You need to make sure your comprehension level is above some certain threshold, otherwise, reading would be a waste of time for you.

How to Read Slowly?

What? Do you need to learn how to read slowly? Isn’t it as simple as just being slow while reading? Well, it’s not that simple, at least you need to know what to focus on while reading. Here are 5 points I think are important to read slowly:

Point 1 - Re-read the parts you don’t understand two to three times

When you encounter something you don’t understand in the book, try re-reading it and its surrounding texts about two to three times. Sometimes you will get the idea after reading it multiple times. If you’re still confused after re-reading, don’t push yourself too hard, just move on to the next part. Maybe you will understand it after getting more information from the remaining contents of the book.

Point 2 - Look up the contents that you don’t understand

This is more important and could bring a lot of knowledge and fun to you! For example, the book you are reading may mention a location somewhere in the world or a historical event that happened in the past. The book doesn’t care much about them so it doesn’t talk about them in detail. But what if you are interested? What if the book presumes some knowledge of those locations/events but you have none so you become more and more confused after reading more? Either case, you can stop for a while and search for those words online for more information. Let me give you two concrete examples. The first one is from a famous book called Guns, Germs, and Steel, the quotes are as follows:

The largest products of Polynesia were the immense stone structures of a few islands—the famous giant statues of Easter Island, the tombs of Tongan chiefs, the ceremonial platforms of the Marquesas, and the temples of Hawaii and the Societies. This monumental Polynesian architecture was obviously evolving in the same direction as the pyramids of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mexico, and Peru. Naturally, Polynesia’s structures are not on the scale of those pyramids, but that merely reflects the fact that Egyptian pharaohs could draw conscript labor from a much larger human population than could the chief of any Polynesian island. Even so, the Easter Islanders managed to erect 30-ton stone statues—no mean feat for an island with only 7,000 people, who had no power source other than their own muscles.

While reading this paragraph, a question may come to your mind: What is Mesopotamia? Mesopotamia seems to be a location, but where is it, and what happened in that place? At this point, you may become interested in that area, but if you ignore that interest and move on to the remainder of the book, you won’t lose much, it won’t even put any obstacle to the understanding of other contents in the book. But since your curiosity has been aroused, you can choose to look up Mesopotamia on the Internet.

The second example is about an article I read a few days before, called Why We Choose Liars as Leaders. To be frank, this is not a book, but I believe this method works for any reading material. Here is the quote from the post:

“Similarly, sports fans are sometimes supportive of dishonest tactics that help their team win in competition. In 2007, the New England Patriots used dishonesty to their team advantage by illegally filming the coaches of opposing teams during football games (also known as the Spygate scandal). Although these actions were ultimately punished, at least some Patriots fans seemed to appreciate Coach Belichick’s commitment to winning, even by dishonest means,” the authors wrote.

Someone filmed the coaches of opposing teams during football games and got punished for that. I got the idea, but to be honest, I knew little about sports. Was it illegal to film the coaches of opposing teams during football games? Why? If you are reading the article and you have the same question, you can search it online. For me, I just dropped that question to New Bing Chat and let it answer my questions, it was much faster. The answer I got was as follows:

According to the NFL rules, videotaping opposing coaches is not illegal in the NFL, per se; there are designated areas allowed by the league to do such taping. However, the Patriots were videotaping the Jets’ coaches from their own sideline which is not allowed. The NFL considered this a violation of the league’s policy on the use of equipment to obtain a competitive advantage. The NFL also prohibits teams from using any video recordings during games, but only between games. The Patriots claimed that they were unaware of this rule and that they only used the tapes for post-game analysis.

Now I got it! Notice that not knowing this doesn’t prevent me from understanding the original article, but it’s nice to know.

Point 3 - Relate the book’s contents to your reality

Reading a book about how to lose weight? Try creating a plan for yourself while reading it. Reading a book about how to do test-driven development (TDD)? Walk through your projects in your mind and see how you can apply TDD to them. In short, do remember to relate the book’s contents to your reality when see fit, and let the book help you to live a better life or do a better job.

Point 4 - Always imagine you are going to retell the contents to another person

I know a lot of people would forget the book’s contents just several days after finishing reading it. That is mainly due to the reason that you are always accepting the book’s contents passively. Do it actively and you will find the situation a lot better. But how to do it? We can draw support from Feynman’s learning technique: If you want to learn something, always try teaching it to another person.

As we are talking about books, you can try to retell the book’s contents to another person after finishing some parts of it. If you have no one to talk to, you can always imagine yourself doing so - retelling the book’s contents to yourself, and this process can happen while reading. For example, suppose you are reading Napoleon’s biography, the book must contain a lot of historical events driven by/related to Napoleon. After finishing reading one event, you can try retelling the story in your mind, it would be helpful for you to understand and memorize the story. If you can do this for each story, I believe you will remember most of them after finishing the book.

Point 5 - Use an electronic device

This point is an advice to help you read. I used to read on Kindle. When I encounter something I don’t understand, I just long-click the word and Kindle will search for it in the dictionary or Wikipedia. Later I replaced it with Boox’s E-ink devices, which are based on Android, meaning that I can search for anything on the Internet more conveniently. I can even use AI to answer my question if I want to. The same can be done on iPad or smartphones, only that the screen is not as comfortable as E-ink devices. Anyway, my point is, if you use an electronic device, searching for anything you don’t understand - which is mentioned in the previous point - would be much more convenient.

However, I know that a lot of people prefer physical books to ebooks. Some of them just like the feel of physical papers, some of them like to draw on them, and some of them don’t want to be distracted by various apps on electronic devices. I totally get it. In that case, you can still read physical books, but take an electronic device with you. When you want to search for something, take out that device and let it do its job.

This point could be controversial because the use of electronic devices is usually distracting, which may ruin the reading experience. But I think it’s a double-edged sword, if you use the electronic device correctly, you will gain a lot more from it.

Pros and Cons of Reading Slowly

Reading slowly has some advantages, and also some disadvantages. I’ll list some here to let you know this method better:


  • Better understanding: You reread the confusing part, you think back and forth whether the author is correct, and you’ve tried retelling the contents to another person. These techniques will surely bring you a better understanding of the book. You may even find the author is not entirely correct in some parts of the book.
  • More gains: When you read slowly, you can choose to search for anything you are interested in yet not detailed by the book. We have already illustrated this in the second point of the previous section. When you do this, you are basically getting knowledge from two sources: one of them is the book itself, and the other would be the Internet. For the latter part, the book is just taken as an index. No matter whether your search is related to the book’s subject, you can always learn more. When you finish the book, you may end up learning more from outside of the book than its own contents.
  • Better memorization: You spend more time relating the book’s contents to your real life, and you keep retelling the book’s story to yourself, all of them mean you will remember more contents from the book.


  • Slow reading: The first disadvantage is, of course, slow reading. You may only read 1/3 of the books than before. Actually, it might not be a disadvantage because it doesn’t mean you will gain less. You will probably learn more in this way albeit fewer books are read.
  • Broken reading flow: You are constantly searching for something, retelling the contents, or trying to apply the techniques mentioned in the book. That means you won’t have a continuous reading flow when reading in this way. So just do it to an extent. For example, you may find a lot of interesting words in the book, but you should only choose a few to search for. If you search for too many words/events/places mentioned in the book, you are not reading the book, you are learning with the book as a dictionary index. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you will take a really long time to finish reading the book. Do notice the warning.


Now you know the pros and cons of reading slowly, and you decide to give it a try, do notice that there are some caveats before applying it:

  1. Some books are not worth reading slowly. Slow reading takes time, so it’s imperative for you to pick a good book to read slowly. Don’t choose books of poor quality, especially those repeating their ideas over and over again. For those books, just reading the first few pages might be fine. Don’t read those books slowly, or you’ll waste a lot of time.
  2. Don’t be too slow. Everything comes at a cost, this also applies to slow-reading. If you find yourself taking too much time reading the same paragraph over and over again and haven’t learned much, you may want to try to speed up a little bit. The optimal reading speed can be obtained by trying to read slowly for two to three books. Pick the most comfortable speed for yourself.


I don’t know if you believe in the power of slow reading or not. I suggest you try this method even if you don’t believe it, at least you get the chance to know why it doesn’t work. No method applies to everybody, we all have our own particularities. But if slow reading works for me, it should work for some of you, too. So, just pick up a book and try it, maybe you will be amazed at how efficient slow reading could be!