I have often mentioned my ineptitude and lack of a motivating principle as a student, but I was not entirely without success in high school. During senior year, I needed a Humanities elective for second semester. Nobody was concerned about "Senioritis" with me because I had demonstrated almost a terminal case of the malady from freshman year on. But I needed one final semester elective and I needed a good grade. I took a look at the list of options and noticed a new course that piqued my interest. It was called Power Reading and it would be taught by a teacher I both liked and respected. In fact, it promoted speed reading, a skill that had gained traction in the public consciousness throughout the Sixties.
It was my favorite president, JFK, who established a national fervor for enhanced reading speed. He supposedly read at a 1200 wpm (words per minute) clip, and he encouraged his cabinet members to acquire the skill. It made sense. You're Secretary of Transportation, let's say. You have a meeting with the President in the Oval Office at 10:00, and you have a foot-high stack of papers with important data sitting on your desk that you need to read and master before you head for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. How valuable would it be to be able to whip through that pile of reports in just an hour or two and be ready to impress the President at 10:00 AM?
Picking up on this trend most successfully was one Evelyn Wood (above). In 1962, she started her Reading Dynamics program, and her business flourished, with outlets all across the country. Senators, astronauts, actors, and royals were among those who took Wood's course. Even future President Jimmy Carter was an advocate.
I didn't have any pressures, though. I read at about 300 wpm, which is faster than most people (the average was about 250 wpm), but nothing special. I loved reading. I read constantly, so I figured that if I could double my speed to 600 wpm, I'd be able to read twice as much! But I won't lie. I thought I'd probably be able to earn an easy "A" in the course, and I needed one of those. So, I registered and walked into class that first day. Unfortunately, I was the immediate subject of derisive looks and comments. All the students were underclassmen. I was the only senior. They shrugged when they saw me as if to say "Here's a second-semester senior who clearly is just planning to veg out in this class before he graduates." I might have just as well been wearing one of those golden hip-hop chains with the words "Pathetic Loser" on it.
Their reaction got my dander up. I was now more determined than ever to do well in this course. I learned the basic strategies. I realized that most people only take in a few letters up to a couple of words at a glance and many sound out syllables or words in their head before moving on to the next word or phrase. The mind, however, supercomputer that it is, is able to process much more information than that. It's just that we trained our eyes to read in this halting manner when we were 5 or 6-years old. So, I had to break my old habits and train myself to focus my eyes on taking in longer phrases or even whole sentences at one glance. We would read passages and then take quizzes with fill-in-the-blank comprehension questions to see what we retained.
Well, after just two to three weeks, I had improved to 600wpm--my original goal for the course! Then 700wpm. And 900wpm. Followed by 1100wpm. And then 1400wpm! I was reading 1400 words per minute, more than quadrupling my original speed. I know. I know. This is where you want to know how much I retained. A reasonable question.
When we had our diagnostic assessment at the beginning of the class, I got 80% of the questions correct after reading a passage at 300wpm. That was considered the sign of a good reader--one who could retain enough information to get 80% of the comprehension questions correct after the reading. But suppose I could read at 600 wpm and score a 75%? Would that be worth the trade-off? What about 900wpm with a 60% retention? Still okay? I kind of felt that if I were reading more than 1000wpm but only retaining 40% or 50% of what I read that it would not be worth it.
Surprisingly to everyone, when I read at 1400wpm my comprehension score was 85%! It hadn't gone down-it had actually gone up! I was remembering more of what I read! I was more focused than ever to push the envelope. I went from 1400wpm to 1800wpm to 2200wpm and finally to 2700wpm! I was reading approximately 9 pages of a typical book in one minute and regularly scoring between 70% and 90% on comprehension tests! I could enter class, read the entire text of The Great Gatsby, and take a quiz on what I had read (scoring well) before the period was over!
Needless to say, I was the star pupil in the class and I earned the admiration of all those students who had given me the side-eye when I first arrived. But I couldn't or wouldn't diminish them in any way. Almost all of them had increased their speed to 500wpm or 600wpm, which had been my goal in the first place. They had done a good job in mastering the skills. Below is a contemporary video of a guy who is currently teaching a similar process. I am NOT pushing anyone to do this; I am simply showing you an example of what is going on in the field.
When I think back on this experience, the biggest benefit was recognizing what I was capable of if I applied myself. I didn't "max out" at 2700 words per minute; I just happened to stop pushing myself at that point. Supposedly, there were people who could read 20,000 wpm and retain great amounts of what they read! We were taught special page-turning techniques in class, but those world-class speed readers actually had to be measured on a device that rolled out page after page because the act of turning pages actually slowed them down!
Ultimately, I stopped speed reading for the most part. For one, it was really hard work. I found I had to practice about an hour a day simply to maintain my gains. If I took a day off or practiced less, my speed would slip. If I practiced more than an hour, I was still showing growth, but as I said, I was no longer willing to up the practice time beyond what I was doing. Think about it. At more than 2,000 words per minute, I could read a 450-500 page book in that hour. It took extraordinary concentration to do so. That concentration led, no doubt, to my frequent headaches. Just not worth it. But primarily, the question came down to how I wanted to read. I could read The Great Gatsby in 30 minutes and answer questions like "What was the color of Tom Buchanan's car?" with relative ease. But plowing through the text didn't afford me the possibility of thinking about one of Fitzgerald's glorious sentences. I was planning to be an English teacher. I shouldn't be reading literature as if it was a data collection--like an encyclopedia. I should be savoring Fitzgerald's diction and thinking about the choices he was making. Speed reading didn't allow for you to stop and ruminate about a chosen word or a symbol or an allusion. You were just absorbing plot details and information.
While speed reading was wonderful for going through the sections of the Sunday New York Times, it was not the answer for a lover of literature. So, I ended my pursuit of speed. I can still crank it up a bit if I want to today, but mostly I don't want to. Scientific research in recent years says that those world class speed readers really can't claim to have read books at those speeds. I suspect the comprehension assessment is what is in question. I had no difficulty remembering the plot details quite successfully, but I suspect if the questions had been more analytical or dealt with inferential elements rather than rote recall, I would not have shown myself to be successful. Still, it was a bit of temporary success that I look back on fondly. Below: A beautiful page from The Great Gatsby.