Is Speed Reading Possible?

A new app promises to help you read novels in minutes. Here's why it might not work.
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The internet is wonderful and terrible in its volume. It allows us to read anything, but it gives us entirely too much to read. That memo. That email. This article. We are all bailing water out of a leaky info-boat.

Most smartphone apps contribute to this deluge of facts. “Save this to read later,” they offer, as though “later” you won’t have better things to read. Refresh your Twitter feed ... or download our magazine app! (Seriously though, do it, if you want to be a thought leader.)

But one app promises to be part of the solution. Spritz, its creators say, will speed up reading time by flashing just one word of an article or book at a time inside a text box. It will center each word around its Optimal Recognition Point (ORP), the point at which most readers recognize its meaning. Users can set the pace at which the words zoom by—currently, the app can go up to 600 words per minute, about double the normal reading speed.

“Reading is inherently time-consuming because your eyes have to move from word to word and line to line,” the creators write. That movement is called the "saccade," and each one takes about a tenth of a second.

The idea is to cut down on the saccades and get straight to the good stuff—the ORP—which Spritz highlights in red as each word appears.

Facebook feeds were unanimous: Spritz could be life-changing.

“OMG I need this!” gushed a typical response. Think how many more Facebook exclamations you could post if you weren’t wasting all your time moving your eyes between words like a chump.

Spritz

“Quit teasing and release the app already!” one man demanded on the app’s Facebook page a few weeks ago. Others have offered to be beta-testers. Still others have predicted a new world order:

“There are only a handful of times when one can remember when a piece of tech totally changed the world and those in it. May I be so bold as to suggest, that this could be one of those times??”

Could it be??

***

This is actually the second coming of speed reading. In the 1950s, a schoolteacher named Evelyn Nielsen Wood discovered that she could read at a much faster pace than the normal 250-300 words per minute by sweeping a finger along the page as she read, reading entire groups of words at a time, and by avoiding sub-vocalization, or saying each word mentally.

These techniques helped Wood reach 2,700 read words per minute, she claimed, and it was these principles she espoused in Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, her speed-reading business. The comedian Steve Allen hawked the program in TV commercials, and over the years multiple iterations of White House staffers signed up. A generation of lawyers and bibliophiles flocked to speed-reading classes that sprang up in community colleges and on mail-order services.

By the 90s, though, the speed-reading craze slumped again. Perhaps because its students found the method to be harder than it sounded, or perhaps because those early Clinton years were simply a chiller time.

Things have changed once again, though. We now read an average of 54,000 words a day by some estimates, roughly the length of a novel. Meanwhile, media companies have cruelly conspired to make “longform” cool again, so now everything you actually want to read is twice as long as it needs to be.

“Did you read that?!” the hipster bookworms on Portlandia shout at one another before shoving pages of a magazine in their mouths, thereby admitting that to stay well-read these days you’d have to physically consume articles, not unlike a human flatbed scanner.

Some forms of what we call “speed reading” are actually skimming -- the reader saves time by not reading every word on the page. And skimming might be useful, in some cases. If you’re pressed for time, it might be preferable to skim the entire text rather than to read linearly through just part of it. A 2009 study found that skimmers did not remember very many details, nor could they make inferences from the text. But they did remember the story’s most important ideas better than those who tried to read normally but didn’t finish the piece.

Wood, the speed-reading entrepreneur, ardently believed that fast readers were good readers.

"My reading technique is actually comprehension by accumulation," Wood once told the New York Times. "I say, which would you rather do: eat a dish of rice kernel by kernel or take a spoonful to get a good taste?"

But most research points to the opposite conclusion: As speed increases, comprehension deteriorates.

In the World Championship Speed Reading Competition, top contestants read about 1,000 to 2,000 words per minute, but they only understand about half of what they take in. One study of 16 high-performing people, including self-proclaimed “speed-readers” found that none could read faster than 600 words per minute while understanding at least three-quarters of the information.

Keith Rayner, a psycholinguist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told me that he thinks “all speed-reading claims are nonsensical.”

Spritz’ technique, called rapid serial visual presentation, or RSVP, isn’t new, and Rayner said it causes the same comprehension problems as other strategies.

“We've known forever that people can go fast with one word at a time,” he said. “But if you have them read more than single sentences, then comprehension breaks down because words are coming at you faster than you can deal with them.”

Less-common words take longer to read than typical ones. You can’t look back with RSVP reading, Rayner explained, so working memory overloads. The reader loses her place and starts missing words, and the word-stream becomes more of a blur than a book.

“There are severe limits on how rapidly the mind can combine word concepts to form the idea units ... that define our comprehension of text,” Michael Masson, a psychologist at the University of Victoria, told me via email.

What differentiates fast and slow readers is not how they read, he points out, but their overall language skills and vocabularies.

I asked him if there is any way to get faster at reading.

“Some modest gains in speed can be achieved by having greater knowledge of the subject matter (an expert in a field will read faster than a novice),” he wrote. “Beginning readers can expect to read faster as they gain more practice, but eventually we each reach some upper limit. The simple answer, then, is ‘read more.'”

***

I Spritzed the “about” text on the company’s site. That’s the only thing available right now for Apple-bound people like me, but the app is already out on Samsung.

It worked, sort of. I was able to cruise along at 600 words per minute, and I only had to use the “pause” button occasionally.

Still, it felt more like a game than a reading experience. The words blazed by, leaving little time for digestion. Despite the speed-reading community’s warning against “subvocalizing,” the frantic pace made me think of the voice of some sort of animated mouse.

“Spritzhasbeenworkingfornearly3yearsin’StealthMode,’” he squeaked breathlessly, “toperfectourreadingmethodology.”

I could see myself Spritzing through a tedious-yet-necessary white paper, say, or some nonessential emails. But much of the press coverage has emphasized that Spritz users would be able to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in just 77 minutes or The Bible in 13 hours. I’m sure that’s technically possible—and it sure would add a little zip to all those “begats”— but I’m not certain it’s ideal.

Wanting to speed through a good book sounds as illogical as rushing through lunch with a hilarious friend. It’s no coincidence that the motto for the World Speed Reading Council is “Hoc opus, hic labor est.” Translation: This is the hard work; this is the toil.

“There are lots of fallen away speed readers like myself,'' Marcel Just, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon, once told the Orlando Sentinel. ''The reason with me, and with others I've spoken to, is it's exhausting. You speed read something in 10 minutes that would otherwise take half an hour, then you have to lie down for 20 minutes and rest up.''

But maybe apps like Spritz (there will doubtless be copycats) aren’t meant for Ulysses. That is, they’re not for reading; they’re for obligatory information processing—all the digital chaff we sort through with each glance at the RSS reader or inbox. And maybe that’s why we really do “OMG need” things like Spritz these days. Not for the joy of reading, but for the duty.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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