There Is No Right Way to Read

7 minute read
Johns is the Allan Grant Maclear Professor of History at the University of Chicago. Most recently, he is the author of The Science of Reading: Information, Media, and Mind in Modern America

One of the most evocative and attractive portrayals of reading comes at the beginning of Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. In a tone of high mock-seriousness Calvino instructs his reader to prepare with dedication for what seems a sacramental act: ”Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade,” he says. Make sure the light is good—sufficient, but not glaring. Take off your shoes. Pose your body in such a way as to efface it from your consciousness. That last command might be impossible to obey—after all, there is no one ideal position for reading, and the stances that people have found best have a history of their own. (We used to read standing up at lecterns, Calvino notes, whereas in the 1970s you might put yourself in a yoga position.) But do your best. Then heft the book and “scan” it—pass your eyes rapidly over this object, to take in the sentences on the cover and get a sense for its length and tone. Only then, finally, after all that palaver, can you begin to read.

Calvino’s extravagant instructions were meant mischievously at the time, of course. Even so, the reaction they are likely to inspire today is a mixture of nostalgia and envy. Who has the time to treat the act of reading with such reverence? But it isn’t a matter of time alone: the biggest change between the 1970s and now is the proliferation of competitors demanding our readerly attention.

In our saturated, hyperactive culture it has become truly a feat to slow down and stay slowed down for long enough. Today’s reader, as researcher Maryanne Wolf put in in her book Reader, Come Home is someone whose mind “darts like a nectar-driven hummingbird from one stimulus to another.” The problem is not just that stimuli abound at any given moment; things are more serious than that. It has become hard in a real, neuropsychological sense to slow down because we have become acclimatized to a relentless onslaught. Our very brains, Wolf reports, have changed. Unease associated with this is one reason why the business of conducting digital detox retreats is so profitable.

Read more: 8 Ways to Read More Books—And Why You Should

Still, there is something defeatist about the idea of a retreat. Why not advance? The promise that you may be able to master the digital environment—that a sufficiently skilled reader can both survey the mediascape and probe significant details at once—is an old one, which has always held appeal. It may date back as long as the very feeling of being overwhelmed with information. That feeling itself long predates the Internet. For all that we may feel ourselves swamped by a constant torrent of opinions, claims, and contentions, our sense of helplessness had its counterparts in earlier periods.

In the postwar years, for example, America’s office workers, government bureaucrats, and military officers alike all complained of the relentless flow of paperwork that demanded and distracted their attention. The first great campaigns to create super-readers emerged in response. It would take the huge population of white-collar workers experiencing the postwar economic boom and give them the power to contend with, bear, and even steer the endless flow of text—even while preserving the humanistic ideal of the critical and creative individual reader.

As so often in atomic-age America, the fount of this optimism lay in science, which was at the peak of its public prestige after the Manhattan Project. Sure enough, a “science of reading” rose to public prominence, giving rise to dozens of businesses that promised transformative results for everyone from housewives to presidents. Americans were told that they could radically augment the human power to take in information by training themselves to read many times as fast as they were used to. Reading laboratories proliferated, and technological gizmos arrived by mail on millions of citizens’ doorsteps. A new age of efficiency, freedom, and self-actualization beckoned.

This science rested on experiments that traced the movements of a reader’s eyes as they passed over a page of text. Using delicate photographic instruments, researchers became convinced that the eyes of a good, fast reader moved smoothly and rhythmically. So they sought now to use mechanical “accelerators” to train Americans to move their eyes in similarly swift and smooth ways, hoping that this would make them equally fluent readers. At the same time, they used tachistoscopes—essentially slide projectors that showed an image of a word or set of characters for a split second—to train people to take in more information during each tiny moment when the eye paused. Psychologist Samuel Renshaw had invented this technique during the war to train hundreds of thousands of servicemen to identify aircraft at a glance. Now his followers repurposed it to train the population at large to identify words on a page with the same speed.

In the end, the hopes raised by this science of reading—as with so many of the optimistic ventures of the atomic age—withered. It proved harder to confirm radical improvement than advocates like Renshaw claimed, and all too often readers found that benefits, real as they might be, dissipated after a few months. Its promises discredited, speed-reading became a preserve of hucksters and showmen.

Today, the phrase the science of reading evokes something different: a neuropsychological field of research that is most commonly invoked to argue for phonics in elementary education. That’s an important argument, to be sure. But the old science of reading, for all its problems, was broader and more ambitious, and the questions it generated are ones that deserve respect. For example, one reason why the project of creating super-readers failed was that critics identified a crucial distinction between “reading” (in the sense of parsing text) and “comprehension.” That distinction, advanced for the first time as a systematic concern in the 1950s-60s, became foundational to contemporary understandings of cognition and education alike. The reading-accelerating enterprise, it turned out, had asked how to make reading faster, but that only led to the deeper question of how fast should we read.

The answer to that question, it turns out, is: it depends. Reading what, and for what purposes? In the course of reading even a single page, a reader proceeds at different speeds, perhaps returning over words or lines to reconsider them while continuing an overall onward trajectory. What we read and why affects how and how fast we read it, in complex ways and at different scales. Our current debates about elementary teaching run the risk of radically underestimating the extent and importance of such variation. Sure, as the modern science of reading tells us, phonetically sounding out characters is an essential element, indeed the essential element. But reading in practice—as a vital everyday habit—involves much more than such mechanical processing. It involves extracting ideas, making connections, and bringing background knowledge to bear. And it is fungible. That is why there is no one speed of reading that is always right, nor even a range (within very broad limits), and why faster reading is not always better.

We can, after all, live up to Calvino’s demands if we really try. But not by simple acceleration, and not by simple phonetics either. There will always be speeds and types of reading that give rise to different interpretations and varied understandings. Reading will always be relative to culture.

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