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."

The first thing you need to do is figure out how fast you read now. In my pursuit of reading speed, I got the CD-ROM called Davidson Ultimate Speed Reader, and then bravely took the self-assessment testa passage about special effects in The Wizard of Oz, which I read at 302 words per minute. My comprehension for the passage, based on the silly test it administers afterward, was 100 percent.

The comprehension questions are important, because what good is speed if you have no idea what you just read? Oddly, claims that speed-reading actually increases comprehension may not be entirely without merit. The reason is that speed-reading requires great concentration. Speed Reader set the goal of 604 words per minute for me, leaving no time for my mind to wander.

Getting to 604 words is another thing. Fortunately, the software offers exercises. In one, the program moves through some text, highlighting several words at a time in rapid succession. The idea is to make you read groups of words rather than one word at a time. I later learned from Moreno that this helps with the age-old problem of "sub-vocalization," or reading aloud to yourself. This habit may be comforting, but it's a big drag on performance.

In another exercise, some widely separated letters are flashed on screen. They disappear, replaced by columns of random-seeming letters. The game is to click the same letters you saw flashed a moment ago. Each time you succeed, the flashing goes faster. The point, evidently, is to get comfortable taking in material in a flash.

On to some more timed-reading tests. I power through a slice of The Age of Innocence at 399 wpm and 93 percent comprehension (I disagree with the software about the one question I got wrong, too), but of course this is one of my favorite books, and I've even seen the movie. In another test, this one a passage about pig racing, I fall back to 366 wpm. And in a selection from Sense and Sensibility, which I read so long ago I can't distinguish it from the other witty Austen books with two-noun titles, I fell back to a wretched 295 wpm. "Some passages are harder to read than others," Speed Reader consoled. I hate being patronized by a computer. "Try this one again and push yourself to read a little faster."

I ignore this and try another passage, one about sleep-deprivation. As the father of twins, I am an expert at this and hope to score impressively. Sure enough, I blast through it at 518 wpm without even breaking a sweat. (It turns out to be true: The more you know about a subject, the faster you can read about it.)

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I am beginning to discover something that Beth Moreno emphasizes to her students: Sensible people need not one but several reading speeds. It would be insane to plow through Moby Dick at the same rate as a Business Week story, and most of us couldn't do it anyway. True speed-reading is ideal for basic informational text (like this, so get moving!). The key is making sensible judgments. When presented with a prenuptial agreement, for instance, go ahead and sub-vocalize.

Moreno says she normally cruises at 450 wpm, which is where I seem to plateau. It's a big improvement, but I'm frustrated. I want to read whole books in a couple of hours. So I try the program's feature that lets you set a words-per-minute rate and displays the words accordingly.

Setting the software at 450 wpm, I read a passage on workplace sabbaticals at 93 percent comprehension. I read a passage about the Edsel at 500/87. Then a passage about gymnast Mary Lou Retton at 550/87, one on Amelia Earhart at 600/93, and one from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at 650 but a mere 81 percent comprehension. At this point I decide to stay away from literature; these novelists seem to think we've got all the time in the world.

Sticking with a healthy 600 wpm (double my baseline speed), I comprehend 81 percent on extreme skiing and 87 percent on John Wayne. I finish John F. Kennedy's address to the U.N. General Assembly at 100 percent, which is something, but I find myself intellectually winded. There are connections not being made here, a lack of appreciation for the shape of his rhetoric. But I swallow some more straightforward journalism at 600 wpm with good comprehension, and now I'm getting cocky.

I plug in 1,000 wpm and, to my astonishment, "read" a passage on the re-release of Star Wars at 81 percent comprehension. I get through another, about creativity, at 1,050 and 93, which is even more remarkable. When I dial back to 1,000 wpm, hoping for better comprehension, I stumble: a passage on Babe Didrikson results in just 68 percent. "Don't worry about a temporary lag in your comprehension scores," Speed Reader consoles me. "They will soon catch up to your new reading speeds."

I don't think so. Reading at 1,000 wpm is really educated skimming, and what's more it's unpleasant, although I suppose that with some materials, reading every word can be worse. Also, it's very difficult to sustain without a lot of practice.

And I kept worrying that I was missing something. Moreno has a clever tip for this: Make a quick mark in the margin so you won't feel a troublesome passage is gone forever, and then keep powering ahead. You can always go back later. Also, it's OK to miss things. Moreno likes to give her students texts with various words blacked out to prove they can still get the gist.

I could practice and practice to keep up 600 or even 1,000 wpm, but I'm happy cruising through vanilla prose at a nice laid-back 400 wpm. I'll chew on novels more slowly, I promise. As to Bloomsbury, nobody will read about it faster than me, because I won't read about it at all.

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