Andrew Marr ‘swims’ through War and Peace once a year, while some readers can take in 6,000 words a minute. Helen Brown investigates the art of speed-reading.
Despite becoming the subject of more books than she probably ever read, it is Marilyn Monroe who most accurately expresses my ideal reading state. In the song Lazy, she invokes a luxuriously languid day in which she stretches out, yawning, under a “honey lake” of a sky, “With a great big valise full of books to read / Where it’s peaceful / And I’m quarantined… being laaaaaaaa-zzzyyyy.” And yet, for too many of us, reading has become a rushed affair.
No honey lake skies open up as we gobble down the latest John Grisham or Jonathan Franzen. Books must be polished off before we reach our train station, before the book club next meets, or before they are due back to the library. And there are so many prize-winning, shortlisted and shockingly-pipped-at-the-post masterpieces on which we are expected to have opinions that bibliophiles seem to exist in a perpetual state of guilt over what remains unread or partially digested.
But this isn’t a modern paranoia. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill’s contemporaries must have felt a similar pang when he claimed that he could read faster than he could turn pages. The American commentator HL Mencken boasted that he could breeze through a 250-page work within an hour, and it is said that Theodore Roosevelt somehow found time to devour two or three books a day while he was in office.
These people might have been regarded as freakishly fast readers had not a schoolteacher called Evelyn Wood “discovered” speed-reading shortly after the Second World War. Ever since, we have been bombarded with advertisements chiding us for not acquiring the revolutionary technique that could make Roosevelts of us all.
Wood was a student in Utah when she got the idea. She submitted an 80-page paper to her professor and watched in amazement as he read and graded it in under 10 minutes. His “untrained” reading rate was a dizzying 2,500 words per minute, although he could not explain how he did it. Over the next two years, Wood rooted out 50 people of all sorts of backgrounds and ages – from teenagers to an octogenarian – who could read at between 1,500 and 6,000 words per minute, and understand and remember what they had read. By studying their habits, she found that they absorbed more than one word at a time, seeing words in meaningful patterns as they guided their gaze smoothly down the page. Wood taught herself to speed-read by watching them, and in 1959 she opened the first Evelyn Wood Institute in Washington DC.
A Wood course begins by getting readers to follow words along the page by pointing at them, and gradually opening up the field of vision until the reader is taking in pages in widescreen. It sounds like an exercise undertaken by a character in John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. He is advised that “instead of following the elusive next word with my finger… I should highlight a spot on the page by reading through a hole cut in a piece of paper. It was a small rectangle, a window to read through; I moved the window over the page – it was a window that opened no higher than two to three lines. I read more comfortably than I had ever read with my finger; to this day I read through such a window.”
According to the Evelyn Wood Institute, the average person reads between 200 and 400 words a minute. “By at least tripling your reading speed,” it claims, “you would possess a much wider and more flexible range of reading rates and experience for the first time the thrill of dynamic comprehension. It is like watching a movie. As Mrs Wood said after reading a book set in the rain forests of Brazil, ‘It was, oh, so wonderful. I had no direct awareness of reading, but I could see the trees, smell the warm fragrances of the forest, feel the touch of the vines and leaves against my skin, hear those magnificent bird melodies. Reading this new way enables me to project myself into the experience, not just read about it.’ ”
I am not sure that Wood’s comments add much credibility. She may have smelled the rainforest, but what was the book about? Did she gain any real grasp of plot, character, prose and theme, or did the ‘dynamic comprehension’ simply give her the flavour of a dish that would never nourish her more deeply? Her response to the South American novel reminds me of Woody Allen’s joke: “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.”
In his Telegraph column last month, Andrew Marr blithely referred to his annual winter ritual of a “swim” through War and Peace. I hoped it was a joke. As the BBC’s political correspondent, Marr appears on our television sets most evenings, offering insight into the latest 250-page government report, or the polysyllabic findings of an independent inquiry. He also presents Radio 4’s Start the Week programme every Monday morning, on which he cheerily discusses books on politics, literature, science and philosophy with their authors. He also reviews new books for this newspaper. Surely the War and Peace ritual was a joke? It was not.
When I spoke to Marr, he was on his way back from the World Economic Forum in Davos with Tolstoy on his knee. “I just do read fast,” he says. “If I’m reading books where I’m already familiar with the argument, I’ll certainly concentrate more on the middle of the page than on the edges, but I do make an effort to read every page. Unless something has gone horribly wrong, then if somebody comes on Start the Week I will have read the book.”
He doesn’t think that speed-reading is especially virtuous, just a useful tool in his profession. He acknowledges different “gears” for different occasions and confesses that “the penalty for fast reading is quick forgetting. People say to me, ‘Gosh, you read so much, you must know so much,’ and I say, ‘Only up a point’.”
Professor John Stein of Oxford University’s Sensorimotor Control Lab and Dyslexia Unit agrees. “Most speed-read material isn’t committed to long-term memory,” he says, “unless there is some incentive to store that information. Temporary information – things like seven-digit phone numbers we only need for a morning – pass through the working memory.”
Slow readers can take comfort in the fact that there’s an awful lot of brain activity involved in the reading process. Stein explains that “it all happens in the cortical [top] part of the brain. You have an auditory system that needs to detect the different sounds and a visual system to detect the different forms of the letters. The visual side of things starts in the occipital [back] cortex, which moves forward to meet the auditory information that’s coded just in front of your ears in the temporal cortex. They meet at the angular gyrus.
“Speed-readers work by training their eyes to scan and pick up key words. They have a template in the mind of the visual structure of words they are looking for and they don’t read the other words. If you present them with a completely new passage on a subject about which they have no previous knowledge then they wouldn’t be much faster than you or I. It’s perhaps controversial of me to say this, but in my opinion they’re not really ‘reading’. They’re picking up the gist.”
The beautiful phrases Stein uses – “angular gyrus”, “occipital cortex”, “parietal lobe” – make me want to savour their sounds as I struggle to make scientific sense of them. I feel sorry for the world’s fastest reader, Howard Berg, who claims to scoff down 25,000wpm. That’s binge reading, surely?
Instead, I find myself envying those the psychoanalytical thinker James Strachey refers to as “sotto voce” readers, “persons who, though not reading aloud, always say every word to themselves as they go on”, forever hindered by “abortive movements of the tongue and lips”. As Mary Jacobus argues in Psychoanalysis and the Scene of Reading: “The `hindrance’ of an auditory imagination is an essential ingredient in poetic pleasure and even understanding.”
Simon Armitage seconds that. He says that, as a poet, he does read slowly, measuring words and syllables against each other, seeking musicality. “I think you get used to reading in the way you write. Poetry happens all over the place,” he says, “and as a poet I’m always wondering what to pinch.” For a literary type, Armitage doesn’t read many novels. “Only about 20 a year now,” he says, “and I always feel I don’t read them properly. I’m sure I skim.”
Those who have to read vast amounts of fiction find it a struggle. The MP Chris Smith, who chaired last year’s panel of Man Booker prize judges, found the experience “a nightmare”. “I’ve just whizzed through Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which is a great thriller. But when the writing is really good, as it was for books we read last year, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, then I really want to slow down and savour every word. The reading ate up my whole summer. I went on holiday, and while everybody else was out for lunch, seeing the sights and wandering the galleries, I was stuck in a hotel room with a suitcase of books.”
As Marr stresses, it is all about finding the right pace for the right situation. Peter Jacobs of Rapid Reading, who teaches speed-reading seminars for professionals, says that the skills he hones are designed only to help us navigate the vast tracts of information we have to deal with at work. His aim is to help us save time, avoid the junk of badly written documents and fish out the bits we need. He has also given seminars for librarians with a limited amount of time to choose which books to stock. “They should be able to make that choice in under a minute,” he says. “A bit of skimming and scanning – taking in samples of prose like pondwater.”
He talks to me about the fact that the tops of lower case letters tell us most of what we need to know. He says that if most readers can process one word at a time there’s no reason the eye can’t expand that to three or four. He also reminds me that many people had bad experiences of reading at school, and that fear of the written word prevents those people absorbing the information they need at speeds that would make them most effective. But he doesn’t believe skimming and scanning techniques should influence reading for pleasure.
“Mariella Frostrup wanted me to go on Radio 4 and speed-read War and Peace,” he sighs, “and Woody Allen was right. That’s just a joke.”