I Went To Speed Reading Camp


If you were an adult, you’d probably refer to it as a seminar or a workshop, but if you attend during the summers preceding your seventh and eighth grade years, then you’re at camp—the place you go to sing songs around fires; learn how to make homemade Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups; miss moms and dads for the first time; and surprise one’s self by holding your shit in for a week.

It’s not where you go to learn how to speed read.

The teacher was a guy whose name fell from the page of names where you would find Betts, Crenshaw or Whit. Blond pony tail, two-day beard, khaki pants, Sebagos with no socks, and a rolled-up long-sleeve Polo button down; he dressed the part of Ivy Leaguer who instead went to Middlebury and got straight C’s only because he realized early on freshman year that he could relax his gag reflex and shotgun tall boys of beer in a manner of seconds. If it weren’t for speed reading he would have never graduated and been where he was that week: teaching this skill to a bunch of 12-year-olds.

The first day we watched a video of the guy from the Micro Machines commercials who talks really fast, reading a book aloud. Next was a video of someone speed reading, which was basically just a two-minute clip of a nerd turning pages real quick-like, and then summarizing what he just read. Impressive, though it could have been just a Criss Angel-style illusion or hired actor. But what really legitimized being stuck in a classroom instead of lying on a couch watching Saved By The Bell reruns was this little factoid: JFK was a speed reader.

JFK and I already had so much in common that I knew if I got this speed reading thing down I would be destined for greatness. So I vowed that day to never visit Dallas, nor take more than an hour to read a Gary Paulsen book.

On day 2 the Speed-Readertron was broken out, which was basically this battery-operated gray bar that moves down the page. You could set it to different speeds, but if it moved faster than you were reading, you’re eyeballs would pop out of socket. Similar to a camp counselor that was a little too old to still be attending camp every summer—even though at this point he or she was getting paid for it—I respected the machine only because I didn’t know any better. By no means could you use it in a game-time scenario. It’d be like taking a drill sergeant with you to war.

At some point the Speed-Readertron was packed away and we were left to our own devices—our eyes, mind, and will power. The secrets to speed reading had been revealed: like grouping words so your eyes move from group to group—not word to word—and not “saying” the words in your head when you’re reading them (subvocalization). This is definitely the hardest part, but it makes the most sense because it’s almost patronizing to the inner workings of your mind to do so. I liken it to running into someone on the street and saying “Hi” along with their name; i.e. “Hi, Arnold.” They know what their name is; why am I saying it?

The rest of our time was focused on comprehension. We’d do a lot of exercises where we were given a 10-page selection and could only spend three seconds on a page. If we had been asked to summarize what we just read, there’s no way we could have really given a clear explanation. But taking a test on it was different. If prompted by questions, we’d realize we knew more than we thought.

Our goal was to comprehend at least 80 percent of what we were reading by the end of camp. And we just slowed down till we got it. Reading at a normal pace, you’ll probably never get much above 80 percent anyway because you start thinking about other things like eating hotdogs or the girl you have a crush on. With speed reading though, you’re going so fast there’s really no opportunity to lose focus. Sure you’ll miss a detail here and there, but if you get the main gist of the passage, novel, or article then you’re pretty much set. Does it really matter that I mentioned homemade Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups earlier? It’s trivial. Who cares?

Speed reading really comes in handy once you realize reading isn’t fun and you should get it over with as soon as possible. Sure, there are people who would say they really enjoy reading the New Yorker while curled up next to a stoked fire. But I don’t buy it.

For something to be truly fun, it has to be enjoyable whether you’re sober or drunk, like shooting a gun. So we read not to have fun, but to free ourselves from our ignorance. So if you read, read fast. Because whether you’re drunk or sober, it’s never fun to be a moron.

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Image via Jake Bouma