“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” – Woody Allen
I’ve been using speed reading software for several years now (in combination with more traditional methods) to skim non-fiction books over the weekend.
These aren’t like the older programs, which aim to train you to read normal books faster. Instead, they assume you’ll be reading/skimming through your computer or phone. The way they work is they translate text into a stream of words that flash up on the screen at high rates of speed one word (or one phrase) at a time. They are useful for a number of reasons (including how well the method works on a small smartphone), but what I’ve found most useful is (Woody Allen jokes aside) they really do allow you, after some practice and when used as a supplement to other methods, to read quite a bit more material.
Dense material or fiction isn’t a great fit, and the method works best when you have a more traditional presentation to complement it, but if you are looking to read/skim something along the lines of the history of vocoders, or scan a popular treatment of the causes of the housing crash, they work well, and allow you (with some effort) to increase your natural reading speed. They also provide an interesting experience in that reading becomes an intensely focused experience punctuated by pauses for reflection and integration — which sounds like what reading should be but often isn’t (in fact, the biggest drawback is probably that the process is exhausting). However, if you want to just read “normally” (which most of the time you probably do) they do provide a great way to scan the text you are going to read at 850 wpm, develop some questions, and then go back for the slower, traditional read.
If you want to see how this works, check out the newest entry into the market: Spritz. Or plug some text into Spreedr. If you are still interested, check your phone’s app store for the dozens of apps you can find in this area (I’m partial to AutoReader 3D, but usually use it in its non-3D form).
Caveat: I’m not arguing you’d want to use this method all the time. But once you try this, you can’t help but wonder if this might be useful to students. Most students wouln’t use it to read, but it could be an great tool for students looking to quickly review a work, or students looking to pre-read a work before a deeper treatment. As the wearable computer market expands — primarily through wrist computers but also through other devices — it’s also likely that this is a fomat that will allow reading on these smaller screens. Whatever it’s likely niche, the existence of such things highlights that it’s an exciting time where we have a chance to rethink the nature of reading itself.
Unless, of course, you have an ordinary closed textbook. Because the one thing you’ll require if you want to try this is access to non-DRM’d text. Just as you will if you want to use text-to-speech software. Just as you will if you’d like to use a third-party annotation tools, or use your phone’s “Share to” function to tweet out segments. And what’s the chance of getting your hands on non-DRM’d text from Harcourt-Brace?
Whether you can use this particular type of app isn’t likely to make or break you in 2014. But it shows how a fundamental problem with closed texts is that they cannot keep up with the advances we’ll be seeing in the reading, annotating, sharing, and remixing of texts over the next few years. And if they can’t keep up in 2014, how are they ever going to keep up in 2020?
The fundamental trade-off we’ve been sold — that we accept closed texts in exchange for quality text and interface — is increasingly becoming a fiction. It’s only a matter of time before people catch on.