Speed-reading apps: can you really read a novel in your lunch hour?

Speed-reading apps: can you really read a novel in your lunch hour?
Apps such as Spreeder and Spritz are bringing speed reading back into fashion. But what gets lost in this race for the last page?
By Tim Adams
Apr 8 2017

This article contains 1,993 words. If you were to read it to the end, without being distracted by your email or your dog or your children or the contents of the fridge or the bills you have to pay, it would take you, on average, a little over six minutes. But what if you were able to imbibe all of its (undoubted) nuance and richness in half of that time? Or a quarter? What if you could glance at the text and know everything it said just by running your eyes down the page?

The idea of speed reading was invented by an American schoolteacher named Evelyn Wood, whose search for a way to improve the lives of troubled teenagers in Salt Lake County, Utah, by teaching them to read effortlessly, led her to the belief that she herself could read at the rate of 2,700 words a minute, 10 times faster than the average educated reader. And further, that the techniques that allowed her to do so could be taught and sold. 

With Doug, her husband, Wood opened her Reading Dynamics institutes across the US and beyond in the 1950s and 60s, and her methods became a self-help craze. The way in which we read, she professed, in the managerial spirit of the moment, was inefficient in terms of time and motion. We had to stop “subvocalising” – “saying” words out loud in our heads as our eyes moved across the page – as well as learning to outlaw the pauses and detours that led to us reread phrases when our minds drifted or our understanding snagged. Print should be consumed in blocks rather than words and sentences. To achieve this, Wood promoted a technique of running a finger down the middle of a page to “activate peripheral vision”. By the end of a course in Reading Dynamics, breathless students were “reading” Orwell’s Animal Farm at the rate of 1,400 words a minute, and telling tales of revolution. 

President Kennedy, who believed himself to be a gifted speed reader (and who colleagues observed “reading” the New York Times and the Washington Post each morning in 10 minutes flat, scanning and turning the pages), sent a dozen of his staffto the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Institute in Washington. Presidents Nixon and Carter, under mountains of briefings, followed suit. The science of Wood’s method was never remotely proven, however, and by the time of her death in 1995, her ideas had fallen out of fashion.

Recently, the attractions of speed reading have been revived and promoted, for a couple of reasons. The first is the persuasive perception that we are living in times of information overload, that we are daily presented with more words than we can possibly cope with, and that new tactics are called for to enable us to make sense of it all. The second factor is the belief that since text can now be presented more dynamically on screens we are not “restricted” by the rigidity of printed sentences on a page: surely there is a better way?

These twin perceptions have led to a wave of businesses and apps that once again aim to “revolutionise your reading speed” (at the cost of $4.99, or whatever, a month). For the past couple of weeks I’ve been experimenting with a few of the best known, mostly on my smartphone. The apps generally use a technology called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), in which individual words, or blocks of two or three words, appear one after the other in the centre of your screen. The rate at which they do so can be set to 300 or 500 or 1,000 words a minute, enabling you to feed in text and books to be “read” faster and faster.

Two of the more popular platforms offer a slightly different approach. The Spreeder app allows you to choose the number of words you see at each moment, and to vary the rate at which these words come at you. I found that I could just about take in three-word chunks of Animal Farm for sense at 800wpm, but that in doing so I not only had a slight feeling of panic in trying to keep up, I lost any sense of the rhythm of language, and with it any of the tone of what was being said.



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