It was one of the most hotly anticipated releases in the history of literature. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, though billed as a follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, it was actually written at the same time as one combined tale. That near six-decade wait to learn more of those classic characters seems even more substantial when compared with the less than half-an-hour it took for one British lady to read it.
The average pair of eyes gets through between 250 and 300 words per minute, which roughly translates as about a page per 60 seconds, but an average speed reader will devour those paragraphs at more than 10 times that rate. Retired teacher Anne Jones, a six-times world Speedreading champion, needed just 25 minutes and 31 seconds to polish off the 278 pages of Lee’s second release, which averages out at 11.1 pages per minute. “People assume I will only have grasped the bare bones of the story,” she tells The Telegraph, “but when I read books that way I come out of it with just as much recollection and detail as those who read in the conventional way. Normally if I’m reading for pleasure at home I don’t go quite as fast as today. It would usually take me about 45 minutes to finish a novel.”
Rather than view pages sentence by sentence, speedreading involves breaking the horizontal strings of paragraphs into vertical blocks and absorbing groups of words at once. The technique, embraced by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher, was first coined in the 1950s by an American secondary school teacher by the name of Evelyn Nielson Wood. She discovered that she could read much faster by sweeping her finger across the page and went on to perfect her technique to the point of an astonishing 2,700 words per minute. She set up her own speedreading company and it wasn’t long before a slew of business people and professionals signed up. “The most successful people I know don’t just read — they inhale information,” writes Brett Nelson in his piece “Do You Read Fast Enough To Be Successful?” for Forbes. “It’s a habit especially prevalent among seasoned investors and serial entrepreneurs: folks who speak in freakishly polished prose, who punctuate their arguments with perfect metaphors, and who can pivot from financial arcana to managerial nuance with a sip of coffee.”
It is not, however, just about reading fast. A study by the University of Bath concluded that those who simply skim read remember very few details of the text, though they did remember main points better than the regular readers who didn’t finish the article. Speedreading competitors on the other hand, are tested stringently on recall.
Ironically, it’s actually our peepers that prevent us from taking in information at a faster rate. “Our eyes impose a lot of constraints on the act of reading,” writes cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene in his tome Reading in the Brain. “The structure of our visual sensors forces us to scan the page by jerking our eyes around every two or three tenths of a second.” The movement of our focus slows down the rate at which we can then read. Speedreading employs a different visual approach whereby groups of words are taken in at once and mental vocalisation is eliminated. “It is a skill that anyone can learn,” adds Jones, “but it takes time to learn how to focus and to unlearn the way that we were all taught to read.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces