If I were forced to choose one single identity, it might well be that of reader.
When I was young, I read voraciously. I recall stacks of books from the library, the Oz books, Hardy boys, Nancy Drew, biographies, anything, everything. I excelled in my school’s summer reading programs.
My parents were readers, one wall of our living room was a big built-in library, but all I really remember is the shelf of Readers Digest Condensed Books. My grandfather subscribed me to Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club, and the day the new book was delivered was the very best day of the month. I’d tear open the package and devour the book, then often immediately reread it.
Forced to attend summer school every summer, I was enrolled in a Power Reading program. I remember being required to read a color-coded text, then answer questions, before moving on to a “higher” color. A waste of time. I hated it, while the other kids were out playing. My grandfather also ordered a subscription to Readers Digest just so that I could study “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.” Maybe it worked: as a teenager I loved living inside long novels, the bigger the better: Michener’s Hawaii and The Source, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago...
When required to write book reviews in school, I was never quite confident about my opinion. So I turned to Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. Reading professional reviews culled from those thick green volumes helped me solidify my evaluation of the book in question. I don’t think I plagiarized as much as allowed myself to be inspired. Ironic that I eventually became a professional book reviewer, publishing my reviews in a variety of venues, even winning an award from Library Journal.
Our family played Scrabble, and it took me a long time to realize that trotting out my 25-cent words wasn’t necessarily an advantage. Shorter, more boring words played strategically would earn more points. I may have worked crossword puzzles, but I don’t have strong memories of that, I was quickly bored.
What I do remember, vividly, is Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics. I don’t know when (or why) my parents thought it would be a good idea to enroll me in this course. I didn’t like it at all. I was already a fast reader, and resented the techniques being taught. It, almost, turned me away from my love of literature. I vaguely recall repeatedly being driven to the classroom of an evening. I don’t remember how many times I had to attend. As soon as the course was over, I reverted to my previous habit and made snarky quips about the course for years.
Killing time yesterday at a public library, I serendipitously discovered a new book: Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked by Marcia Biederman. To quote the product description:
The best-known educator of the twentieth century was a scammer in cashmere. “The most famous reading teacher in the world,” as television hosts introduced her, Evelyn Wood had little classroom experience, no degrees in reading instruction, and a background that included work at the Mormon mission in Germany at the time when the church was cooperating with the Third Reich. Nevertheless, a nation spooked by Sputnik and panicked by paperwork eagerly embraced her promises of a speed-reading revolution. Journalists, lawmakers and two US presidents lent credibility to Wood’s claims of turbocharging reading speeds through a method once compared to the miracle at Lourdes. Time magazine reported Woods grads could polish off Dr. Zhivago in one hour; a senator swore that Wood’s method had boosted his reading speed to more than ten thousand words per minute. But science showed that her method taught only skimming, with disastrous effects on comprehension–a fact Wood was aware of from early in her career. Fudging test results, and squelching critics, she founded a company that enrolled one million. The course’s popularity endured even as evidence of its shortcomings continued to accumulate. Today, as apps and online courses attempt to spark a speed-reading revival, this engaging look at Wood’s rise from mission worker to marketer exposes the pitfalls of embracing a con artist’s worthless solution to imaginary problems.
How validating, vindicating, that this miserable technique was a scam. I am amazed and appalled that Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics videos and books remain on the market (“works like magic”). It is shocking really. Apparently it’s true that “There’s a sucker born every minute,” as attributed to P.T. Barnum. What is it about that post-war period that inspired such self-deception? On one hand, even though I was one of her dupes, I’m impressed that the little lady was able to pull the dust jacket over everyone’s eyes.
But now I have to go read another book.