Speed Reading

Breakthrough Rapid Reading by Peter KumpYears ago, as in during Reagan’s first term, someone gave me a paperback copy of an Evelyn Wood manual to learn speed reading. These days, it’s hard for me to get any reading in since I’m working, writing constantly (That gasping sound you hear from the direction of New England is Stephen King having heart palpitations after reading this.*), general family stuff, and caregiving.

But I have a list of books I want to get through, and the last King book I read, Under the Dome, took me six months. When I was single and even before, it would be six weeks. As a teen, I read It in two weeks. Mind you, as a teen, my life was considerably less complicated than I realized. So was yours, most likely. Back then, reading was a way to quell ADHD.

These days, ADHD is as much something I’ve always dealt with since childhood as it is getting pulled in a dozen directions at once. It’s resulted in some OCD tendencies, though I’m not sure I have that particular syndrome. Sitting down and reading a book is hard.

Then a couple of months ago, scifi writer Scott Moon suggested a book called Breakthrough Rapid Reading by Peter Kump. It’s been a revelation. Kump is a former director at Evelyn Wood’s organization, and he worked with them to create a manual for people who don’t have the time or budget to take a full speed reading course. I managed two weeks and had to stop to take care of other business, but the changes are astounding. 2021 may be the first year since 2015 that I read more print and ebooks than I listen to on Audible. (Audible rocks, by the way!) I’ve picked it up again because I’d like to get everything I can out of his program. I doubt I’ll develop Theodore Roosevelt’s book-a-day habit, but it is possible. More over, you can do that and retain what you read.

I got a hint of how it’s done during my Uber adventures when I picked up a lawyer who had just passed the bar. He mentioned getting assigned 2000 pages a night, which I said was outrageous. “Not really,” said the lawyer. “Only three hundred pages are really necessary. The rest is repeat, summary, and footnotes. Then you scan for topics, go back, and read what you find. You can read three hundred pages of law in half an hour if you do it right.”

I didn’t think anything of it until Scott, a newly minted police lieutenant, found himself inundated with tons of management paperwork while still needing to keep up his scifi bona fides. So he posted about this in the Keystroke Medium Facebook group. Not only has it upped my reading game, but it has shown me there is more than one way to skin a reading cat. (Wear thick rubber gloves. Cats don’t like to be skinned. Or even shaved. What were we talking about?)

  • How we were taught to read is incomplete. By the second grade, we all read linearly without thinking about it. It’s actually inefficient and slows us down.
  • It’s not necessary to read every word. You often hear speed readers say they’ll skip words like and, the, a, and so on. It’s a bit more nuanced than that, but those words are signals to move on.
  • Read groups of words. Not just two or three, but whole lines or even parts of paragraphs.
  • Read for purpose. You know those people who tell us “You must read every word!” They owe you an apology.
  • Different writing requires different reading techniques. A novel is best read by “dusting,” putting your hand on a page and moving it back and forth down the page. You can get speed up to two pages a second this way and still remember what you read. News articles are best read with circling: Taking your finger across the first line and reading the rest of the paragraph by circling your finger between two or three lines back and forth. Also, I now only read the first two and last two paragraphs of an article. Journalists will recognize this as how they add or delete column inches. More technical material should be skimmed or scanned (two different techniques) so that you read what you need, not all the summary or intro.
  • There are four techniques to reading: Linear (which we are all taught in school), skimming, scanning, and groups of words. This last is what the course teaches.
  • Your hand is your buddy. Those videos and films of people running their fingers across the page? That’s a thing, but it’s not just reading with your finger line-by-line. Usually, you’re tracing your way through a paragraph to see what it means. Or the aforementioned dusting, using your whole hand to guide your eye.
  • Subvocalizing is the enemy. I’ll bet you’re reading this in someone’s voice, maybe yours, maybe mine if you heard it before, or what you imagine my voice to be. You may not be moving your lips, but you’re “hearing” it in your head. That’s subvocalization, and that slows us down more than anything. I’m subvocalizing as I write this. On the other hand, even dictating, I’ll never get 3000 words a minute writing. I may some day get that many words reading. Reading is seeing the words, not saying them.

So now, I can read several news articles between tasks and not lose any time. I’ll get through King’s 11/22/63 probably in a week or two. Kindle will prove to be a challenge. Some of that is age, having to read regular-sized print on a computer screen, but there are ways to apply what I’ve learned to that.

The point is I can read more now, and more widely, going from slogging through a book on history to reading War and Peace in a week. Okay, that’s pushing it.

*That silence you hear is from the more likely scenario that Stephen King will never read this.