One of the most obnoxious “personal development” trends emerging from within corporate America’s boosterish culture of total work — aside from mindfulness meditation, diet cults, life coaching, and valetudinarian use of weird, expensive supplements — is speed reading. Everywhere, self-help gurus, already taking up more and more space in our social media feeds, have begun adding to their menus of inspiration services the art of reading more quickly, of comprehending more and better. Learning, it seems, is no longer adequate. To keep up in contemporary society, one must upgrade to the status of a “SuperLearner.”
A towering figure in this industry is Jim Kwik (on his name’s pun he says, chummily, “You could say I was born to do this”), a man with a personal development empire — Kwik Learning — that boasts clients like Will Smith. Kwik’s main vocation is teaching memory skills. He can impressively memorize dozens of numbers tossed at him by random audience members in a massive auditorium. He also teaches what he calls “meta-learning,” or “learning how to learn.” But the speed reading component of his business is no less popular than these other services. A new Tony Robbins for our distracted internet age, Kwik claims that with his reading tips — and for a fee, of course — you, too, can “activate your quick-brain,” acquire this “super power,” and do things like read “52 books a year.” (Others, more hucksterish, even claim you can learn to read “a book a day”; and still others, radiating peak charlatanry, insist merely touching the cover is adequate.)
Seen in tandem with other popular companies like Blinkist, Joosr, and Shortform, which offer bullet-pointed, summarized versions of books so customers don’t have to spend time actually reading the books themselves, speed reading is part of the emergent market of “cram reading” and represents the latest heights to which our skill-obsessed, workaholic society aspires. I have little doubt that following lines of text with a pencil or scheduling specific times to focus on the task of reading (both “techniques” advised by Kwik) could aid in the reading process. But a more pressing matter is why such odd, over-achiever exploits are so alluring in the first place. Just why, exactly, is everyone suddenly so behind on reading, so gripped by the need to read more and faster than ever before?
For the answer we need only survey the structure of our techno-capitalist civilization, with its grinding, hyper-competitive dynamism, to see how the unrelenting demands of such a system are responsible for these very feelings of inadequacy, for that nagging sense that one is always behind — in work, in abilities, in life. Indeed, in an industrial technological society whose chief metrics of health are the twin idols of progress and productivity, it is no wonder its citizens are encouraged to function commensurately, to keep pace with the madcap velocity with which new information is produced and hurled at them.
Of course, this wasn’t always so. I don’t imagine, for instance, that the citizens of ancient Athens — with their rich culture of rhetoric and dialectic, of architecture and geometry — were similarly dragooned by their merchant and martial society to inhale a library’s worth of scrolls within a year. Nor can I see how the scholar-bureaucrats, Buddhist and Taoist priests, and other citizens of the Tang Dynasty, a glistening society of leisure and poetry and trade, would have been under similar pressures to outcompete their fellows by acquiring stupendous amounts of “actionable” knowledge. No, it is only those enslaved to the magnetism of productivity, to a culture of total work, who are bludgeoned into cultivating extraterrestrial capacities for information acquisition, who are beguiled by marketing slogans like Kwik’s that promise a “competitive advantage” over their peers. Lawyers billing over 3,000 hours a year, striving to make partner; bankers working 80-120 hours a week, submitting to Wall Street’s gyrations; couples in dual-income households, floundering to keep up with their friends’ social media lifestyles; wage slaves working full-time jobs, aspiring to get ahead through their “side hustle” — these, and not the citizens of previous societies, are the sad proles put to the racks of permanent competition. For those of us stuck in this productivity dystopia, the only path to “success” involves the eternal investment in one’s own human capital, the undying exploitation of the self.
Such expectations and desires to continually ratchet up performance are not only uniquely modern, a hangover from Enlightenment and Positivist notions of historical, technological, and even human development; they are also futile. “The work needed to deliver humanity is vast,” writes the British philosopher John Gray. “Indeed it is limitless, since as one plateau of achievement is reached another looms up. Of course this is only a mirage; but the worst of progress is not that it is an illusion. It is that it is endless.” As the dual events of the 2008 financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic render the unsustainable, hubristic nature of our endlessly progressive civilization more and more obvious, one reason for the popularity of cram reading becomes apparent: it is the unconscious reflex of our collective psyche grasping, psychotically, for any way to maintain the Potemkin features of the only system it has ever known. And, since doing so would require a miracle, it is fitting that such instinctual salvaging efforts take the form of fashionable pressures to acquire magical, equally unattainable powers.
The relation to magic is no accident. While these specific desires for and demands of superordinate ability are new, the fundamental beliefs driving them are not. The idea that humans can unlock hidden knowledge or achieve certain arcane capacities in order to free themselves from standard material existence is of course an artifact of Gnosticism, the first century creed whose influence can be found in a variety of philosophies, religions, and cults, from Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism to Christianity and Scientology. Gnosticism is the belief that humans and the material world were created not by the real Christian God of the Bible, but by an evil demiurge, a trickster. For the Gnostics, the only way for us “traces of gold imbedded in dirt” or “sparks of spirit” to escape the cursed prison of our ersatz existence and gain access to the spiritual realm of actual reality is to obtain a special kind of knowledge, or gnosis (the Greek word for knowledge). The metaphor for this knowledge is found in the book of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve partake of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As a result of this acquisition they become, as the serpent initially predicted to Eve, “as gods, knowing good and evil.” Much like the effect of the red pill in the film The Matrix, partaking of the fruit, so the Gnostics thought, symbolizes the acquisition of a unique knowledge or power that liberates us from our provincial material prison. The newest, unwitting vendors of this ancient cult can be found among the high priests of Silicon Valley: technophiles like Google’s engineering director Ray Kurzweil, who believes that through technological advancement humans will soon be able to upload their minds to a global supercomputer, or anti-aging enthusiasts like Bulletproof founder and popularizer of Bulletproof Coffee Dave Asprey, who believes that through supplementation and his low-inflammation ketogenic diet he will live to the age of 180.
Seen from this view, the trend of speed or cram reading is simply another modern Gnostic heresy. If only the secret gnosis of Kwik or other epigones is acquired, so the belief goes, we mere mortals will finally be able to unlock Faustian powers like rapid reading and increased comprehension, capacities leading to boundless potential. But just as the wish of the original Renaissance-era Doctor Faustus entailed acquisition of powers alluring to people of 16th-century Europe — such as alchemy — so too are our own fantasies a function of the computational age in which we live. When Kwik asks, enthusiastically, “What advantages would you have in work and in life if you could download decades of knowledge in your mind in a matter of days?”, it is our contemporary obsession with, even worship of, the emergent god-like powers of computers to which he appeals.
The cult of cram learning may also be an index of a particular unconscious belief about the relation between knowledge and work. Consider the two modes of understanding from the ancient and medieval worlds, ratio and intellectus. As outlined by the Catholic philosopher and classicist Josef Pieper, ratio entailed examination, deduction, definition, reason, and effortful, logical thought, whereas intellectus meant passivity, receptivity, intuition, contemplation, and effortless, inspired thought. The former was regarded as distinctly human, while the latter divine. In his 1952 essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” Pieper points out that while “the process of knowing is the action of the two together,” in the modern age we are possessed by the idea that only understanding from ratio constitutes genuine knowledge. He blames Kant — who considered philosophy a “Herculean labor” and knowledge exclusively discursive (that is, the opposite of intuition) — for this bias. In Pieper’s reading of Kant, Kant arrived at this conclusion not just because he believed that one could only understand something by working to understand it, but also that the work itself — the effort exerted — was a criterion of its truth. From this view, understanding derived from contemplation, inspiration, and intuition is somehow derivative, not real knowledge; or, in Kant’s words, if “there is no need to work” and if “one only has to attend to the oracle in one’s breast and enjoy it,” then that is “the end of philosophy.”
Employing these categories of ratio and intellectus, of discursive and intuitive knowledge, I have a mind to conclude that those enamored by speed reading, as well as participants in other domains of cram learning and productivity culture, may unwittingly be under this Kantian spell, may be duped by this overvaluing of hard work. For these enterprising types, our own bare minds, unaided by high octane mental investments, are deficient — the chthonic forces of the market demand more. Regular learning, like an obsolete technology, requires the “Herculean” upgrades of meta and super learning in order to help us remain relevant in the résumé pile. Forgoing the work required to obtain such an upgraded brain product, and opting to rely on the fruits of other kinds of understanding, is for lazy fools who don’t expect to win the labor market sweepstakes, who don’t know the joys of “passive income” or “being your own boss.”
There are practical problems, too, with the speed reading pursuit. The obvious one, of course, is that speed reading risks impoverishing the very activity it claims to augment. But there is something else at work here. Take Woody Allen’s famous quip regarding speed reading War and Peace in one sitting: “It was about Russia.” When Kwik claims his program will enable us to increase our reading speed “by 300%,” it is worth asking what kinds of books he expects us to be reading. Are they ones like the Republic, the Divine Comedy, and Don Quixote, or more like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Think and Grow Rich? In other words, is the “hack” really good for all types of reading, or mainly for texts read largely for functionary purposes (“how to invest money wisely,” “how to market my start-up,” etc.)? The distinction matters, because certain books, we should not forget, are tackled for quite different ends, ends that reveal reading to be not just an instrumental activity, but also an experience. In Emerson’s imperishable essay “The Over-Soul” (a text I do not recommend speed reading) he writes:
The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions. His best communication to our mind is to teach us to despise all he has done. Shakespeare carries us to such a lofty strain of intelligent activity, as to suggest a wealth which beggars his own…
The point here, as I read it, is that because those who have produced great works were, at the time they created those works, positively charged, as it were, the ruling effect of their creations, on account of the charge imbued in them by their creators, is to ignite us, the reader, with their same charge, to allow us to “feel our own wealth” and to carry us to a “lofty strain of intelligent activity.” On one hand, I doubt whether those speed reading this oracular observation would catch its subtle point, let alone experience the very feeling it describes. But on the other hand, aloofly missing opportunities for edifying experiences may not entirely be the speed reader’s fault. I wonder whether those crafting books on, say, goal crushing, billionaire habits, or “how to make your money work for you” are loftily charged in the way Emerson describes. Instead of a “great poet” we may in fact have mere craftsmen, clever merchants hawking information products to eager knowledge addicts — inspiration sold separately.
But perhaps the most ominous feature of cram reading and super learning is that their popularity is inversely related to the type of society that spawns them. The commodification of knowledge, in other words, cannot thrive for long when those expected to consume its products don’t possess the time or money to do so. Americans, it has long been known, work longer hours than their counterparts in other developed nations. In fact several recent books — Byung-Chul Han’s 2015 The Burnout Society, Benjamin Hunnicutt’s 2013 Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, Daniel Markovits’s 2019 The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, and Jamie K. McCallum’s 2020 Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work is Killing the American Dream — detail this trend. Compounding this indignity of constantly increasing labor time is the fact that, for most Americans, compensation hasn’t increased commensurately; moreover, since 1960, the median price of homes has increased at four times the rate of household incomes. One depressing consequence of all this is that Americans’ ability to save and own property, and thus to have opportunities to engage in leisurely pursuits like reading and other liberal arts, has been dissolving for decades. In fact, premonitions of this phenomenon were sensed even earlier. In his famous 1941 essay “On Popular Music,” Theodor Adorno observed that within Western industrial society, “A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously.” The spare time of the masses in such a society is not really spare time at all, he writes, but merely a respite that “serves only to reproduce their working capacity.” In other words, under America’s modern culture of work, rest from work is really just rest for work.
As the state of total work reaches its climax, the free time of its citizens — as well as their mental stamina needed to engage in deep, close reading — begins to eclipse. The acceleration and success of the type of society that produces cram reading products and services thus implies the erosion of the type of life in which people can actually enjoy them. Most ironic, too, as Markovits points out in his book, is that not even the wealthiest among us, with their gilded careers and high status positions, can escape this infernal orbit of work: “Indeed, as technological developments render mid-skilled workers increasingly surplus to economic requirements, and at the same time place super-skilled labor at the very center of productive life, meritocracy shifts the classic afflictions of capitalism up the class structure. The increasingly superfluous middle classes assume the role once occupied by the lumpenproletariat, while alienated labor comes home to roost in the elite.” The Greek myth of Sisyphus — the story of the king of Ephyra who was doomed to roll a boulder up a mountain in Tartarus, only to watch it roll back down again, over and over, for eternity — reveals a crucial belief of the ancients. For them physical labor, especially when unending, was a wretched indignity. Yet now, in our society, such an indignity characterizes the life of all citizens, even the new aristocracy. Within the techno-structure of neoliberalism, we are all Sisyphus.
To be sure, we could all strive to read a bit more, and better. But reading is a humanist act, not a capitalist one; and speed reading, super learning, and other hyper-acquisitive business enterprises promoted by corporate productivity culture see it only as a crude human capital investment, as yet another method for keeping pace with demands to continually reinvent and exploit ourselves. When hoary, half-baked sales seminars (part of Kwik’s program consists of the “3 Rs: Read, Relate, and wRite”) say speed reading can save us “an hour each day,” or when TED Talk bros insist it’s an integral component to one’s “talent stack,” they betray this depraved, commodified, purely utilitarian conception of reading. Despite the indomitable ascent of such philistine forces in our society, we should reject them at all costs, opting instead to assert our unfailing human proclivities for leisure, laziness, and contemplation. For a society spellbound by the graven images of efficiency and industry, productivity and progress, reading for its own sake is dysfunctional. All the more reason to do it.