There have been some mentions recently of renewed interest in speed reading. Back in the '60s, it was all the rage.

It was a system taught in seminars conducted by an outfit called Evelyn Woods Speed Reading Dynamics. It claimed to make the average reader read two to five times faster, with better comprehension.
 
The average reading rate was said to be 250 to 300 words per minute. Mrs. Woods, who founded the course, was said to be capable of reading 2,700 words a minute. That would be about 45 words a second.
 
Part of the instruction included learning to read vertically down the page, rather than back and forth line by line.
 
I don’t know if any seminars are held these days, but you can still buy an at-home Speed Reading Dynamics course online for about $500.
 
When speed reading popularity was at its peak, there were regular reports of celebrities learning it. President Kennedy and his brother Bobby took lessons, and Kennedy encouraged his staff to do so.
 
Richard Nixon also recommended the course to his staff. Jimmy Carter took the course himself.
 
It was said that Kennedy could read 1,200 words per minute. That would mean he could read this column in about 30 seconds. Doesn’t seem likely, does it?
 
In the early 1980s, a professor from the University of Missouri studied speed reading, and tested what he said were some of the “best readers.” I’m not sure whether that means best speed or comprehension or both.
 
He would be a good investigator, I suppose, because the phrase “I’m from Missouri, you gotta show me” used to be the major expression of skepticism, and Missouri proudly calls itself the Show-Me State. But that’s a subject for another column.
 
The Missourian scholar said he found that the fastest anyone can absorb information and still comprehend at least 75 percent of it is 400 to 500 words per minute.
 
He decided that most people already read at their own optimal speed, usually 250 to 300 words a minute.
 
Writing as a person who spends a lot of time, thought, effort, and application of posterior to chair to produce assemblies of words that are meant to be read by other people, I am not a proponent of speed reading.
 
Speed reading Evelyn Wood-style, or skimming written material with clumsy rapidity, is okay when you’re reading a lot of the necessary information the 21st century world thrusts upon us. I just received the information about the coming year from my source of health insurance, and it runs to 70 letter-size pages of reading.
 
With that, I could use some advice from Evelyn Wood.
 
But when you are reading this column, in which I have pondered over every sentence, or when you’re reading any newspaper or magazine article, or any book of fiction or nonfiction, and especially any poetry, please do the writer a favor and don’t speed read it and wander off with only 75 percent comprehensive.
 
Do not mentally gallop through "The Iliad," or "Alice in Wonderland," or "Good Night Moon," or "War and Peace," or "Fifty Shades of Grey," or "Oliver Twist," or the Gospel According to St. Luke, or "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows," or the hard work of a zillion other writers.
 
Please read it slowly, considering every thought and how each thought was presented. Here’s the deal. If you promise to read slowly, I’ll promise to write slowly.   
 

Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.

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