Written by Matthew Archer.
In 1929, Evelyn Wood watched her professor flick through her master’s thesis at a peculiarly high speed and seemingly with full comprehension. This was the moment she became fascinated with the concept of speed reading and it led her to develop the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course. Below you can watch one of her students speed reading twenty-seven pages of a novel, again apparently with full comprehension:
Here’s the social scientist Charles Murray recalling his own experience with the famous speed reading course:
One summer while I was in graduate school, I enrolled in the Evelyn Wood speed-reading course. When I entered the course, a pretest revealed that I read at about 500 words per minute—okay but nothing special. At the end of the course (as I recall, it was about six weeks) I was reading at around 2,500 words per minute. It is hard to convey what a phenomenal experience it is to be turning the pages of a book every few seconds with full comprehension. Furthermore, the change was not as straightforward as losing weight. The program had drastically raised my ability on a complex cognitive task. As a graduate student with a crushing reading load, it seemed too good to be true.
And it was. There was a catch, and my Evelyn Wood teacher was stern about it: You’ve got to read everything using the Evelyn Wood technique. You can’t decide to pick up a detective novel and read it slowly just for fun. If you do, you’ll lose your speed. I can’t complain that I wasn’t warned. And of course, I didn’t follow through, and within a few months I was back at baseline. The experience often comes to mind when people ask me if there’s any way to raise IQ and I have to answer that there’s no way to raise it dramatically. Then some corner of my mind goes back to that brief, shining moment when one of my own cognitive abilities shot upward like a rocket, and I add, “not permanently.”
But what does the science say about speed reading?
I’m sure there are some weirdly wired humans who can speed read thousands of words per second with remarkable comprehension (and perhaps they can even read detective novels for fun without losing that speed), but we’re interested in what’s possible for ordinary folk. Despite all manner of speed reading innovations, the science is unequivocal: speed reading, for most people, means a trade off in comprehension. Here’s a nice review article I’ll quote from:
The research shows that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy. It is unlikely that readers will be able to double or triple their reading speeds (e.g., from around 250 to 500–750 words per minute) while still being able to understand the text as well as if they read at normal speed. If a thorough understanding of the text is not the reader’s goal, then speed reading or skimming the text will allow the reader to get through it faster with moderate comprehension. The way to maintain high comprehension and get through text faster is to practice reading and to become a more skilled language user (e.g., through increased vocabulary). This is because language skill is at the heart of reading speed.
Of course, there are times when speed reading is incredibly sensible. For example, if you’re already very familiar with a topic speed reading is probably a good idea. But let’s face it, you’ll forget most of what you read regardless. Worse, if you’re a writer you’ll forget most of what you’ve written! That’s one reason why I’ve always been drawn to the idea of picking a hundred or so great books and just reading them over and over again until they become part of my soul. I guess that’s part of the idea of a “Great Books” education.
The problem, of course, is that if you’re more interested in science than the humanities or literature, to re-read often feels like stagnating when so much of interest is being published every year. In this case, perhaps a compromise can be sought between one’s fiction reading and non-fiction. I’ve recently re-read Animal Farm and The Importance of Being Earnest. I last read both around ten years ago. What I didn’t realise was that re-reading a book (especially after such a long time) also means revisiting one’s past thoughts and impressions. It’s a peculiar form of time capsule. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Matthew Archer is Editor-in-Chief of Aporia.
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