Speed and Typography

28.09.2017 |

Episode #5 of the course How to read and retain more by Abasi Latcham


Welcome back.

Today is all about reading speed—not speed reading, though. We are actually going to consider why speed reading isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


Reading More vs. Reading Quickly

Reading quickly is not the best way to read more. And when I say “read more,” I mean reading more than you currently do, understanding the content of those texts, and coming away wiser—reading better.

“I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” —Woody Allen

Let’s distinguish between reading better and reading faster. Reading faster will help you read more, but it’s analogous to saying that typing faster will help you work more. It will help somewhat, but it’s not what you’re looking for.

Reading more and better is not a passive activity; it requires you to engage with the author, evaluate their argument, and ask questions (we’ll explore this more in the upcoming lessons). Reading is work, and work is good. Do the work.

And even if you do manage to double your reading speed, then what? To quote Ryan Holiday again:

“What are you going to do with this time you ‘save’ speed reading? Work more? Watch more TV? Respond to email? Ugh. By doing this, you miss out on all the ancillary benefits of reading: peace, quiet, and concentration. Don’t toss that out.”

There are many articles with tips on how to quicken your reading speed. But be warned, focusing on your speed is a great way to turn reading from something enjoyable into a chore.

Who are you trying to beat?

There is one caveat I will mention, however, and that is, again, audiobooks. Because speech is already much slower than reading, I find I can comfortably listen to audio material at around 1.3x normal speed without any decrease in comprehension.

But in general, it’s okay to read slowly.


Typography for Reading

Having said all the above about reading faster, I want to say a few words about typography and how that could impact your reading speed. Obviously, 99% of what I say here only applies to reading on a screen. Note that these suggestions will not lead to any radical changes in your speed, but over time, they could cumulatively give you some gains—consider them “no regrets” measures.

Typography is the layout of the text on the page, including the font style, size, spacing, background color, and more. Good typography makes reading easier and thus faster. For example, I prefer to link to Wikiwand, not Wikipedia. This is because the typography of Wikiwand makes the exact same content much easier to read.

Typography is more art than science, and there is no agreement on optimal typography settings for reading. However, I’ll think you agree that it is easier to read Wikiwand than Wikipedia, and I recommend applying that same principle to your e-reader.

Here are my preferences for typography; I encourage you to play and find what is easiest for you to read:

Typeface: I find serif fonts easier to read for long periods of time. I often use Georgia or Palatino. I detest Arial.

Font size: Printed material often uses twelve-point font to save ink and paper, not because it’s easiest to read. Increase the size if you read on a screen.

Background colour: Sepia if daytime, black if night.

Line spacing: 135% of line height.

Paragraph spacing: About the height of one line of text.

Margins: Depends on your font and typeface, but make a line about 60 characters.

Tomorrow, we’ll start exploring the levels of reading, which are essential for understanding how we can retain more. But before that, please review the key lessons and a daily exercise for today.


Key Lessons

1. Wanting to speed read so you can “get through books faster” defeats the purpose of reading. It’s like watching a movie on fast-forward. The best way to read faster is to read more.

2. A few simple typography tweaks can make reading a bit easier on your eyes and brain, but any gains in reading speed will be marginal.


Daily Exercise

If you use an e-reader or app, check the typography settings. If you have a book, read it.

Until tomorrow.


Recommended reading

The Art of Slow Reading


Recommended book

Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors & Students by Ellen Lupton


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