The 1960s and ’70s were a time for many things — moon landings, peace and love, Watergate, etc. — and one of those things was the rise of TV pitchmen selling snake oil of various kinds, like the old K-Tel and Popeil commercials in which they hawked pocket fishing rods and record-flipping gizmos (which were created by old carny and Vegas pitchmen Phil Kives and Ron Popeil). Along with all the other pitchmen was a pitchwoman: Evelyn Wood, a grandmotherly type who pitched her magic Speed Reading course.
Evelyn claimed that she could teach anyone how to read at thousands of words per minute with perfect comprehension (the average person reads at about 100-200 words a minute). The only problem with Evelyn’s pitch is that her process didn’t work — but she, and the business types she hired managed to turn it into a profitable business anyway, thanks to endorsements and cheesy commercials.
A Utah school teacher and a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Evelyn did a master’s degree in speech at the University of Utah, and this was what set her off on the path to speed reading. “I turned in my thesis to Dr. Lowell Lees,” Wood would recount, “and watched in amazement as he read my eighty-page paper as fast as he could turn the pages.” Inspired by this feat, Wood dived into the business of teaching people to read
A book on Evelyn Wood that was published in 2019 — which has since become a podcast — is called “Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked.” A reviewer for Library Journal describes it this way:
Before Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, there was Evelyn Wood. The ingredients for a successful con were the same: a dynamic founder, lightly credentialed, who peddled a sensational, secretive product with the endorsement from prominent figures. Journalist Biederman did extensive research on her subject, which shines through in this clear telling. Wood and her husband were devout Mormons who spent 1938 and 1939 in Nazi Germany on a mission. Wood, always driven, learned the value of spectacle and self-promotion, becoming a college reading instructor and promoting a service called speed reading. Her business boomed after she relocated from Salt Lake City to Washington, DC, and recruited students and salesmen to take her classes.
Interestingly, the student newspaper at Harvard, the Crimson, seemed to be on to Evelyn’s scam as early as 1967, when it published an article about her. According to the Crimson reporter, Evelyn’s original effort at opening a couple of dozen reading schools failed and her company went bankrupt. That’s when she took on some savvy business types who presumably upped the pitch and scaled back the actual education part.
The Reading Dynamics operation, which has justly been called the greatest advertising campaign since the comeback of Hertz, was not always based on the pure money ethic. In fact, Evelyn Wood is a deeply religious person and she considered her first attempts at commercialization in 1960 more in terms of a religious crusade: “Why have I dared to believe that reading down the page, at speeds held by many experts to be impossible, can be done? Perhaps it is because my deep religious convictions teach me that ‘a man is saved no faster than he gains knowledge;’ that ‘no man can be saved in ignorance;’ that ‘the glory of God is intelligence.'”
Unfortunately for Evelyn and the rest of her operation, eventually it became obvious that the process simply didn’t work. In fact, it’s just not physically possible to increase your reading to the kinds of speeds Evelyn promised while still retaining enough comprehension to make it worthwhile. As two scientists described it in the New York Times:
There is only a small area in the retina (called the fovea) for which our visual acuity is very high. Our eyes are seriously limited in their precision outside of that. This means that we can take in only a word or so at each glance, as well as a little bit about the words on either side. In fact, since the 1960s, experiments have repeatedly confirmed that when people “speed read,” they simply do not comprehend the parts of the text that their eyes skip over.