Man Vs. Word


In 1969, a psychologist named G. Harry McLaughlin published the results of a number of experiments he’d made on speed readers in the Journal of Reading. His fastest subject was Miss L., “a university graduate with an IQ of 140” who had taken a speed reading course and claimed to have achieved speeds of sixteen thousand words per minute “with complete comprehension.” He hooked her up to the electro-oculograph, a device that measures eye movements, and let her rip.

Miss L. read Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust at 10,000 words per minute […] When she was half way through I asked her for a recall […] Miss L. recalled a number of details but only six [of twenty-four] main points. She did not mention the most crucial point of all, namely that the heroine was having an affair.

There is not much point in even opening A Handful of Dust if you aren’t going to twig to the fact that Brenda Last has betrayed her husband. Surely, nobody who has failed to catch the central premise of a book can be said to have “read” it. Woody Allen has an old and much-quoted joke along these lines: “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

On the other hand, though, even the slowest, most deliberate reading is no guarantee of comprehension, a point my friend Ron once made at a long-ago lunch. I’d asked him, “So what are you reading these days?”

Descartes, he replied, with an abstracted air; he’d just finished, he said.

“How did you like it?”

“I read each word.”

Some weeks ago I was asked to try out a speed-reading phone app called Spritz: it’s one of a number of new products from tech startups that are trying to Disrupt Reading in one way or another. The tech writer Jim Pagels of Slate wrote approvingly of the Spritz-like Spreeder app last year, which he’d been using for the better part of a year. He says he’s been able to read a great deal more using it, and added, strikingly, “If only I’d known about [this] while in college, I may have actually gotten through all 1,000 pages of Tom Jones.” The slogan of Spritz, Inc. is: “Reading, reimagined”; their product makes use of a technology called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation, or RSVP, which more or less boils down to showing you one word, or a few words, at a time. The company claims that their spin on the technique can enable us to read more, read faster and/or retain more of what we read.

RSVP was invented in 1970 by Kenneth I. Forster, a researcher at the University of Arizona. Aside from offering researchers a precisely controlled means of investigating language processing, the system has long suggested certain potential advantages over conventional reading: it requires a high level of attentiveness as the stream of words scrolls by, permitting less wandering of the mind, and it also requires far less eye movement on the reader’s part than does conventional reading.

In the case of Spritz, no eye movement at all is required of the reader; exactly one word is displayed at a time, and each word appears with its “optimum recognition point” in the same spot, and colored in red, in order to aid focus.

I find it quite relaxing to read using Spritz, in a way; because your eyes don’t move, the words just flow by, in a curiously unimpeded manner. You can change the speed from very slow — ordinary reading speed is around two hundred and fifty words per minute — all the way up to a thousand words a minute, which whizzes by at such a rate that I have trouble catching more than the barest gist of each sentence.

But after a while spent practicing, I concluded that it is much more difficult to gather ideas of any complexity at all using Spritz than it is in ordinary reading. Complex ideas, like those routinely presented in philosophy or literary fiction, require a lot of rereading as you go. Also, when the sentence begins in a Spritz display, you can’t tell how long it’s going to be: a terrific drawback for comprehension. It would be nearly impossible to read a very ornate style of writing one word at a time — a style like Gibbon’s, say, or Proust’s — because the final clause of each sentence comes so long after the first that you’d be bound to lose track. (It wouldn’t work for poetry, either.)

I admit, I’m set in my ways to some degree: I can’t enjoy very dense prose properly on a tablet or Kindle either, not even after years of practice. I can’t situate my thoughts in the topography of a big book the same way when I’m able to see the text only through a keyhole, as it were, unable to feel with my hands whether I’m a third or a tenth of the way through; I feel as if I’m on the surface of the text, rather than in it. That hard, glossy surface!

This is in no way to suggest that I’m about to give up the ability to find all instances of the word “ilk” in Infinite Jest in under one second! (There’s just one, in the remarks of Madame Psychosis: “The endocrinologically malodorous of whatever ilk.”)

A romantic figure named Louis Émile Javal (b. 1839) played a big part in the development of speed reading. Javal, a Parisian ophthalmologist and inventor, came from a family much afflicted with strabismus and other eye troubles; he originated any number of ophthalmological devices and therapies, and named, though he was not the first to observe, the saccades (“jerks” or “twitches”) and “fixations” that characterize the eye’s uneven passage over written text. This discontinuous motion of the eye during reading appears to have been noted first by German physiologist Ewald Hering, who, in 1879, affixed a rubber tube to a cigar holder, put that in his ear, and, placing the other end of the tube on the edge of an open eyelid, found he could hear the jerking movements of the eye beneath as it read.

You can quite easily feel this movement yourself, as Javal’s associate M. Lamare discovered in the lab of the Sorbonne, right around the same time Hering made his observations. Just close one eye, rest your finger lightly on the closed eyelid, and read with your other eye; you’ll be able to feel a whole flurry of saccades. This realization, that the reading eye doesn’t focus smoothly on each letter or word, but instead gathers in whole phrases, skips around and backtracks as the mind figures out what’s being said, was key in the development of speed reading.

Ake W. Edfeldt focused on a different physiological aspect of reading, what’s now called “subvocalization,” which he described in a 1960 monograph called “Silent Speech and Silent Reading.” Using electromyographic sensors placed on the larynx, throat, and lips of his subjects, Edfeldt discovered that people bring the vocal apparatus into play as they read, in a kind of subliminal version of “sounding out” or reading aloud. Edfeldt found subvocalization more pronounced in unskilled readers, but even skilled ones frequently employ it in reading particularly difficult passages.

In the early sixties, a Salt Lake City teacher named Evelyn Wood began teaching enhanced reading techniques based on her own observations, and an interest in “speed reading” came into the mainstream. The key goals of Woods’s method were to eliminate subvocalization, and to reduce eye movement as much as possible by training the eye to flow straight down the page rather than going line by line; simultaneously, the hand sweeps down each page as a guide. This system became very popular; Presidents Kennedy and Nixon invited Wood to make presentations to their respective staffs, and in 1977, President Carter and his family took the Evelyn Wood course, as well. You can still buy the The Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Complete System online (“a comprehensive multimedia approach”) for an eye-popping seven hundred simoleons.


Spritz, Inc. recently co-sponsored the LA Hacks event at UCLA Pauley Pavilion, where over a thousand young coders had gathered to compete for a five-thousand-dollar prize. When I arrived, near the end of the competition, the lobby was full of crashed-out kids in sleeping bags, while the basketball court was covered with tables crammed with open laptops, each one with a bleary young contestant or two before it. The genial Spritz executives, gamely dressed in white Spritz t-shirts, including Frank Waldman, the company’s co-founder and CEO, were looking a little worse for the wear. Waldman demonstrated for me how he could toggle between reading email, news and books on his various devices using Spritz. “The reason you don’t finish [ebooks] is that you don’t have that block of time available,” he told me. “But if I could read, say, two pages at a time… I rip through a couple of pages of the book. If I’m near the end, I can flip it into Spritz mode, and I just power through! Done. You know that feeling you get, when you finished the book?”

Though Spritz claims to have perfected RSVP and to have based its modifications on scientific analysis, experts have in general shown no love for the idea that RSVP systems such as Spritz and Spreeder offer any significant improvement in reading.

“Many of their claims appear to be false,” Mary Potter, a professor of psychology in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT who has been working with RSVP since 1969, wrote to me in an email. “I have done numerous experimental studies using RSVP to present sentences and paragraphs, and my work showed that although one can easily read at 12 words per second, and momentarily understand what one is reading, memory is very poor for material presented at that rate.”

When asked to compare ordinary reading with reading using RSVP, Dr. Potter replied, “I doubt if RSVP-based reading is ever superior to ordinary reading, other than for amusement. Whether it could be used in some way to improve reading skills, I don’t know: possibly […] Like so-called speed reading, I think the hype about RSVP-style reading will fade as people discover that it can be fun to try and can give the illusion of an easy way to take in information, but that it is in fact not a substitute for normal reading.”

I prefer to think of reading, as it has often been described, as a conversation, and what a conversation requires is the absolute opposite of speed. The literary conversation requires pauses, here and there. You might fix a cup of tea, meander around in the book some more. Interrogate the author, wonder what he might think of your ideas. Other authors might come along to weigh in. Half of the procedure is just reflecting, sometimes absently, sometimes in a boiling or stone-cold fury, or amusement or excitement, on what is being said. On responding.

I don’t think it would be too far off to compare the difference between Spritz and conventional reading to the difference between bolting a glass of Soylent, and savoring a beautiful dinner with friends.

Louis Émile Javal, the famed opthalmologist, contracted glaucoma and, after an unsuccessful operation, went blind. He bore the loss of his sight with great fortitude, publishing Entre Aveugles, a touching book for doctors treating those facing blindness, in 1903. Coincidentally, Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life was published that same year.

Helen Keller was the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree (from Radcliffe College, in 1904) with the aid of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. She graduated with honors in German and English. How did a deafblind student manage to understand ordinary lectures at the turn of the twentieth century? Anne Sullivan came with her to every lecture, and spelled each word with her own hand into that of her pupil.

The lectures are spelled into my hand as rapidly as possible, and much of the individuality of the lecturer is lost to me in the effort to keep in the race. The words rush through my hand like hounds in pursuit of a hare which they often miss. But in this respect I do not think I am much worse off than the girls who take notes. If the mind is occupied with the mechanical process of hearing and putting words on paper at pell-mell speed, I should not think one could pay much attention to the subject under consideration or the manner in which it is presented. I cannot make notes during the lectures, because my hands are busy listening.

They did it, in other words, through what you might call an early form of RSVP (though it wasn’t technically V.) The words of the lectures streamed in not just one word, but one letter at a time. Genius like Helen Keller’s is very rare, but clearly it’s possible for an active mind to acclimate itself to new tools and new information, and gain undreamed-of levels of skill in reading. Perhaps it will be best to keep an open mind, as these new tools are introduced, while maintaining a healthy respect for the ones we have.

Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic in Los Angeles.

Photo by Charles Kremenak