Is Speed Reading Possible?

A new app promises to help you read novels in minutes. Here's why it might not work.

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.


“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?"

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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