There’s a certain mystique surrounding the phenomenon of speed reading. Proponents have described it as an effective way to learn quickly, grow smarter, and impress your friends and colleagues. Meanwhile, skeptics question if speed reading is truly distinct from mere skimming. Others wonder: can speed reading make you smarter? Or does being smart simply help you read faster?
These conundrums make real-life cases of speed reading all the more fascinating. Let’s take a look at some at some of the world’s most outstanding readers to learn what it is about being able to enjoy an entire book in one sitting that so enthralls us.
Introducing the rock stars of reading
There is no definitive list of the world’s fastest readers, but a legendary handful have emerged over the last century to prove their speed reading credentials before the public. In doing so, these folks—from the original “Rain Man” to three U.S. Presidents—have sparked enduring wonder at what the human brain can do when put to good use.
Most of us read about a page a minute, or 250 to 300 wpm (words-per-minute). That means the average reader could theoretically get through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—a book with 199,797 words—in about eleven hours. Online, Harry Potter fans report consuming the book in as few as four hours and as much as 37-and-a-half hours, with breaks.
Anne Jones makes us all look pretty slow. In 2007, the sixth-time World Champion Speed Reader read ‘Deathly Hallows’ in a stunning 47 minutes, give or take a second. That’s 4,251 wpm, or about 14 times faster than a “normal” reader.
After completing J.K. Rowling’s novel during her London tea break, Jones then offered a book review to several media outlets as proof of her thorough comprehension.
Howard Berg’s claim to fame began with the 1990 Guinness Book of World Records, in which he was first recognized as the world’s fastest reader with a heroic speed of 25,000 words in a single minute. The ability comes from a childhood spent in the library, reading incessantly: “It was the only place to play,” he says.
Hitting 3,000 wpm in college, Berg realized there was nowhere to go but up. He ultimately taught himself to read-and-flip the pages in a book like most of us shuffle a deck of cards.
Among the most intelligent U.S. presidents, Theodore Roosevelt was famous for his efficient reading skills. He would often take in an entire book before breakfast. If time permitted after dinner, he’d read through a few more before bed.
“The wise thing to do is simply to skip the bosh and twaddle and vulgarity and untruth, and get the benefit out of the rest,” he wrote in a letter concerning the best way to absorb Dickens.
TR’s method exposed him to literally tens of thousands of works over his life.
Most people know “megasavant “Kim Peek best by the movie character he inspired–the “Rain Man,” played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film of the same name. Fast absorption was no problem for Peek, who could just as easily read and memorize a telephone book as a compendium of Shakespearean plays.
Kim could take in 10,000 words-per-minute reading two pages at a time—the left page with his left eye and the right page with his right eye.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Ever inspired by his fifth cousin and former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted old Teddy’s autodidactic approach and taught himself to speed read. He began by fixating on two-to-three words at a time. He then pressed on to three-to-four, six-to-eight, and so on.
Eventually, America’s beloved four-term President could read whole paragraphs like ordinary folks read individual words.
Author and consultant Tony Buzan is a high-profile figure in the “mind sports movement,” a niche scene that manifests most prominently in the annual Mind Sports Olympiad (MSO), which Buzan co-founded. Billed as one alternative to the Olympics, the international competition showcases winners in the five Mind Sports, including speed reading.
According to Tony: “Reading is to the mind as aerobic training is to the body.”
John F. Kennedy
Following in the Roosevelts’ footsteps, John F. Kennedy made speed reading a personal priority during his tenure in the White House. With practice, he cultivated a rate of 1,2000 wpm, as he wanted to be able to read two or three books daily. JFK wanted his brother Bobby to learn to speed read, too, and the pair of Kennedys took classes together to that end.
Evelyn Wood was the first public figure to argue that speed reading techniques could be applied by anyone, no matter their intelligence or education. In fact, the term “speed reading” originated with the American educator and businesswoman who sold Reading Dynamics courses to thousands of devotees in the last decades of her life.
It was Evelyn Wood who inspired President Kennedy to develop his own speed reading skills.
When Yale literature professor Harold Bloom was in his prime, he could blow through a 1,000 words per minute. He was the the kind of guy who could enjoy Pride and Prejudice over lunch and still read through half of Great Expectations before ending his break.
Bloom’s reading magic has earned him the apt epithet “America’s best-known man of letters.”
Jacques Bergier, the late Ukrainian-French author of the occult classic Morning of the Magicians, is a colorful character in the speed reader pantheon. Bergier was a savant who lived a dramatic life worthy of the stories he told, involving himself in espionage, the French Resistance, and the literary world of fantastic realism until his death in the ’70s.
A born speed reader, he took up newspapers as a toddler and was versed in three languages by age four. As an adult, he read ten books a day at 2,500 wpm, despite suffering lifelong vision problems.