Faster Pussycat! Read! Read!

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Feb. 18 2000 9:30 PM

Faster Pussycat! Read! Read!

Can our reporter train himself to read as fast as the guy in the Guinness Book of Records?

The Slate Reading Test

* Can You Improve? 

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Remember speed-reading? John F. Kennedy, Evelyn Wood, savants sweeping their hands across pages of text and swallowing them whole?

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Ever since I first came across this stuff in the '60s, I've had a serious case of reading envy. It started in college when my plodding style ran up against mountains of assigned material. I've been covering up my handicap ever since, hiding the shame of a slow reader behind the brave front of a productive hack.

Finally, I decided to do something about it. No more 98-pound literary weakling. Never again would Proust kick sand in my face. I would learn speed-reading and blaze through the teetering pile of books on my nightstand. I would absorb magazines at warp speed—even read all those intimidating Bloomsbury biographies.

And after a month of desultory effort, I have some good news: You can read much faster than you already do. Really! But there's a secret. The secret to reading faster is …

Reading faster.

That's right. Just hurry up! See, there's an example. You needn't even have read that last sentence. If you really want to read fast, you ignore some things at the margin of significance. Toss all writerly flourishes and elegant throat-clearings by the wayside. The fact is, and it hurts to admit it, you needn't even read every word in a piece like this, which is why an accomplished speed-reader can get through it in about 80 seconds.

Seductive, isn't it? Never mind, just keep reading! The point here is that speed-reading is passé nowadays (skip to the next paragraph now!), which is strange given the extraordinary acceleration of life in so many respects (now that you know the secret, zoom through James Gleick's recent book Faster). One reason speed-reading has all but died out is that Evelyn Wood, the matriarch of the field, really has died.

"And not a moment too soon," says Beth Moreno, who teaches free speed-reading courses at the University of Texas and disdains the hype and hucksterism associated with speed-reading. In fact, says Moreno, who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature (Do you care? Keep those eyes moving!), "There is no magic to it."

So I learned. Basically, anyone can raise his reading speed by 50 percent. All it takes is a few simple tools, such as a newspaper and a stopwatch, and a little hard work. If you're really determined, you can read as fast as Moreno, who can do 900 words per minute when she pushes herself.

"The upper limit is close to 1,000 words per minute," she says, despite such reading machines as Howard S. Berg of McKinney, Texas, who made the Guinness Book of Records as the world's fastest reader. But even Berg, who can read a book in 90 seconds when pressed and cruises at 20 pages to 30 pages a minute for relaxation, acknowledges that you shouldn't try this at home. Once you figure your baseline reading speed, he says, "at or near double is a reasonable expectation."

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