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How to read 462 books in one year

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When Sarah Weinman, who writes our Dark Passages column, tweeted that she'd read 462 books in 2008, I thought it had to be a typo. Maybe she meant 46? 62? Either of those, about a book a week, would be respectable. But no, she really did read the impossible-sounding 462 books in 2008. Those 462 books marked a personal record -- she's been keeping a formal list since 2005. Below, she explains what it's like to be a super-speedy reader.

Jacket Copy: So how do you do it?

Sarah Weinman: I've been trying to analyze my reading method to see why I've almost always been able to do this (well, I started reading at the age of 2 1/2; I don't think I was speed-reading back then, but I became aware I could read fast when I burned through eight "Sweet Valley High" books in one evening when I was about 9.) A lot of it has to do with my music background. I studied voice and piano fairly seriously during my elementary and high school days, and as such, I became very attuned to rhythm and cadence and voice. So what happens when I read is that I can "hear" the narrative and dialogue in my head, but what's odd is that I'm both aware of the book at, say, an LP rate (33 1/3 revolutions per minute) but in my head it translates to roughly a 78. I've tried to slow this down, but realized that my natural reading rhythm is freakishly fast when an author friend asked me to go through the manuscript of her soon-to-be-published book for continuity errors. I sat in the La-Z-Boy at my parents' house with a pencil, went through page by page making notes but also enjoying the book, and had the whole task done in about 3-4 hours. This was a 350-page manuscript too, so roughly 80,000 words. Take away the pencil and the editor's hat and the reading speed would probably be close to 90 minutes. What also seems to happen is that I read a page not necessarily word by word, but by capturing pages in sequence in my head. The words and phrases appear diagonally, like I'm absorbing the text all in one gulp, and then I move on to the next sequence I can absorb by paragraph or page. It's like I'm reading from a whole-language standpoint instead of phonics -- that's the only way I can figure out how to explain it.

JC: Do you retain plot or characters best? Or something else?

SW: I retain characters more often than plot, but what seems to happen is that I latch on to specific moments, turns of phrase and dialogue as touchstones for me to recall what happened in the book. Kind of like freeze-frame. I've often wondered if the passage of time will make me forget what happened in a book, but more often than not, I'll pick up a book to reread and remember almost exactly what happened, the mood of the book, and how I felt at the time when I read it. If a book is great, there's an electric charge as I read the text and "hear" the voices in my head. But honestly, a lot of the books I read in 2008 were mediocre or forgettable, and if I hadn't been on a subway or captive on a plane or a train, I might not have finished them.

The difference in reading for work and fun - after the jump.

JC: As a critic, how do you make note of significant passages or things you plan to mention about a book?

SW: It depends on the venue. If I'm writing for the L.A. Times, for example, or especially for a venue I've never written before and thus want to make a very good impression upon the editor, I'm reading with an eye to review it critically, and as such, make note of quotes I want to use by turning down the top right hand corner of the page. And I try my best to "slow" myself down, but as I explained, once I get into a book's rhythm, my natural speed kicks in, more or less. If it's for the Baltimore Sun, with only 200 words per book, I almost never quote verbatim, so it's not as necessary to make note of specifics (unless there are those I want to make note of.) Otherwise, a whole lot of thinking and letting my head take over. I find there's a natural but frustrating gap between when I finish reading a book and when I start writing a review. I've tried to bridge it by starting right away, but I almost always have to throw out whatever I've written, whereas if I write the review during a dedicated time during the day (often after berating myself for undue procrastination ... so it goes) it ends up fairly clean.

JC: Do you also read for leisure? How is that different from reading for work?

SW: If I didn't read for leisure, I would go nuts. But it is different. When I read a classic crime novel by, say, Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo or an older book by Richard Powers, it's less about keeping up with contemporary publishing and making sure I'm staying abreast of what's going on in crime fiction (or the New York literary scene, though I still haven't read "Netherland," so clearly I'm not one of the cool kids) than filling in necessary gaps or appreciating why certain authors count among my favorites.

JC: What were the longest and shortest books you read in 2008, and how many pages were they?

SW: Longest book was "2666" by Roberto Bolaño, and it was an irregular reading experience. I read the first four parts during a cross-country plane trip, reading at slightly slower than usual speed but surprised at how accessible the book was compared with "The Savage Detectives." I then did not pick it up for a week while I was on vacation and finally read part five in bits and bites by the time I returned to New York. I think the passage of time helped me to figure out what was going on with parts I-IV (which I thought brilliant) so that by part V, I'd made all the larger connections and appreciated what Bolano was trying to do -- which was, to my mind, show that there is a place of hell so horrible and unimaginable that even 900 valiant pages is not enough to explain the cataclysm of human failure.  Shortest book? Maybe Carlo Lucarelli's "Via Delle Oche," which I think is barely 100 pages. But I'm not sure.

JC: And finally, how many books have you read so far -- by Jan. 9 -- in 2009?

SW: I've read 10 books and am about 50 pages through No. 11. So still roughly a book a day!

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Athena's Pix via Flickr

 
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Oh, thank goodness! I'm not alone in the world. This is how I read as well. I try to explain it to people and receive blank stares and then the subject is quickly changed.

Thank you for sharing!

When I was a kid the librarian wouldn't let me check out enough books to keep me occupied for the week, I finally convinced her after going to the library mid-week and reporting on each of the books I had checked out. I could have the adult amount then. I once tried to describe the way I read as vacuuming the page with my eyes.

I used to read like this before I went to school (plenty of time!) and for a few years afterwards (no, not picture books but proper adult novels). Wish I could still do it. When I was in school I read about 3-4 times as fast as most other people.

I once had a boyfriend (vaguely suspicious of my reading speed) watch me as I read. He described the same thing; it appeared that I read in "chunks" instead of word by word.
The best part, I think, is that it means that I nearly always have time to read new books I am interested in and old books that I love.

And I thought I was alone too! Thank you! In first grade, my teacher let us take home our book about two weeks after school started and I read it that night. The next day when I told her, she exclaimed, "Oh, Carol, you were only supposed to read the first chapter!" I had to sit there in reading group the whole year, bored to death, because I already knew what Alice and Jerry and little Sally were going to do. And in third grade, I asked my teacher to get me Little Women because it was too high on the shelf for me to reach - she refused and said I was too young to read it. I asked for it for Christmas and read it in a couple of days.

I read almost 300 books last year in almost the same fashion, and am reading almost all the time (when not working, of course).

Thank you for this! I have been wondering about how Sarah reads so many books ever since I saw that tweet. I was feeling like some kind of illiterate turtle.

This is exactly how I read!! I started reading at around 2 1/2 as well, and think that teaching myself to read (as opposed to learning to read in school, via more traditional methods) is what led to my freakish speed-reading abilities. When I was a kid, all the librarians knew me because I hit the library's book check-out limit (50) on a regular basis and would read adult novels at an incredibly young age (I first read Gone With The Wind in the third grade). To this day, I still read an incredible amount of books for fun (also around a book a day, at least, although I haven't kept a list) and am able to read and digest huge amounts of information in a short time, which comes in handy in my field (law). Good to know there's others out there like me!

It took me all afternoon to read this article. I'm jealous. I bet I can watch more TV than any of you though!

Phooey! A 350 page book is easy to read in about two hours, especially those romances or other similar light fare.

Besides, reading solely for speed takes the fun out of reading.

Does this woman think there is an Olympic category for reading the most books in a year?

What a bore!

Well I certainly dont read as fast as Sarah and have never really done a self-essasment on my style. I do remember on my eleventh birthday getting the Lord of the Rings trilogy and reading all three that same day. People almays think I am joking when I tell that story but it is quite true (I can still see some of the imagery in my mind 22 years later). Today, I dont get to read as much as I like to but by a rough average come to about 150 books a year. Often on a weekend I will easily read 3 books start to finish. On a trips across the states I have to pack 3 books (average fiction length) for the trip out and three for the trip back on the plane, since I will finish 3 before I land. I also keep a small collection of antique books. Thank goodness for the library, generous family friends with book store gift cards and used books - being a bibliophile can be an expensive way of life!

I can see the advantage in reading the necessary boring books quickly. But reading so fast must take some enjoyment out of a great book. I certainly wouldn't wolf down my favorite meal, or be so brisk intentionally during sex.

you're probably the giant sucking sound i heard at the central library the other day. but then - can you go in reverse?

if you can read that fast, and if you could type at lightspeed, could you write as fast too, in effect leafblowing the words backout until you had oaked a book?

i cannot read as fast because often i have to re-read stuff just to understand it. i read one of those little semiotext books a while ago and it took me a month as i meandered in and out of the pages amid discussions and conversations with others in some kinda weird talmudic romp. in the end, of course, the journey was far more memorable than the completion of it.

Wow. 462. That's incredible. But if you do it for your job, and if you don't watch television or movies, I suppose a fast reader could burn through quite a lot.

And I know exactly what she's talking about with the diagonal reading. That's exactly what I do -- I explain it to my students by saying it's the speed-reading stage in-between reading whole lines in a single eye-gulp and reading whole pages in a single eye-gulp.

But this last year I've forced myself to read slower to study sentences and nice turns of phrases, which can get skipped over, or at least not savored, when you're reading that quickly.

I can read fast (I didn't measure, sorry), but when I used to read for pleasure... all the fun was reading as slowly as possible and trying to get out all the possible meanings of it (in style, in references to the same book or another, etc).

Maybe i'm too much obsessed with the details, but in general i'm not interested in the "story" of the books so much as in what the author thought when he/she wrote that and what are the other meanings of the words that probably he/she didn't mean but can be understood as such.

Funny - I read in chunks, too. The principal at my grade school gave me a special dispensation (it was a Catholic school, OK?) to take out as many library books as I could carry at one time because I went through them so quickly.
I think the eyes & brain work as a scanner first, then a word processor in the background, so it's not necessary to focus on a word, line or even paragraph at a time.
Sadly, it's slowed a lot in adulthood since I can't just sit around reading all day - ah, youth!
tm

Do you wear glasses? Does reading so much hurt your eyes?

any tips on learining how to read music?

I'm a stay at home Grandma, retired attorney with similar reading habits. Today I read three books to distract myself while cleaning house. Did anyone else read their first books upside down? Started reading very young, wonder if that's why I'm so nearsighted.

It's amazing how many of us there are. I taught too myself to read when my mother read to me as a kid and always wondered if that had something to do with the way I read. The only books I did not read in a single - very long - seating were novels such as Remembrance of Things Past and the Count of Monte Cristo.

And I recall wanting to finish all the Hardy Boy books because I was getting to the point I was just flipping the pages. Until now, though, the only time I ever met anyone who read as fast as I was when I was sharing a book in class at UCLA . I sat back to wait for her to finish just as she leaned back at he same time I did. We both did a double take - and then plowed though book together...

And.... as the memories come flooding back.... my parents had to go to the local public library when I was in the first grade and get special permission for me to get an adult library card.

With some novels, though, I do read more line by line to savor the language. But when reading non-fiction books on subject I already know a lot about, I just skip the information I already know and only process the new material; that way I can knock off four or five books easily on history or urban planning when I jump over the parts I already know.

I, too, do this, and have never been able to put it to words. Weinman did a great job describing the method of a super-fast reader. I agree with another commenter, that it is because we are "self-taught" at a young age (2ish for me, too) that we have developed this method, rather than learning the method typically taught in schools. Because I have become used to reading so quickly, I have a huge problem having to put a book down before I finish it, and for longer books or ill-timed starts of books, I have stayed up very late just to get to the end, cause I can't not know how it ends before I go to sleep! I wish I had kept a list so I could see how many books I read last year, though I know the number would be at least 300. I will start my list for this year, so far at 12, on number 13.

I am wondering how fast does she read books which must be understood, for instance a Chemistry textbook. And does the method differ?

Ellie - textbooks are a whole other story. I haven't been in an academic setting since 2003 but I read them at a far, far slower pace than I do fiction and narrative non-fiction. Granted, textbooks are selected for setting down concepts and explaining them instead of exceptional prose style and readability, so the experience of reading and absorbing information is different as a result.

Michael Bell - Genetics is on my side; I have 20/20 vision and should be able to evade wearing glasses until my mid-40s, unless all the time I spend on computer erodes my ability to see properly. I do suspect that helps with my ability to read at a prodigious rate.

Garth - I learned to read music when I was young and it was "easy" to trick a plastic brain into figuring it out. But learning as an adult, I guess maybe start with a single phrase, like for the violin, and then eventually graduate to chords and multiple lines?

Apparently a lot more people read the same way I do than I I thought. Too cool. I read so fast that Neal Stephenson's Anathem only took me a day.

I read like this too! I remember participating in a summer reading contest in fourth grade and reading 162 books -- they couldn't believe I actually read them all, but I did! and still had time to go to the beach!

I read "Gone with the Wind" in 5th grade -- took me 2-1/2 days. The Lord of the Rings trilogy took me a little longer, maybe five days -- I purposely read it slowly to savor the high-saga language in "Return of the King."

In school, I never had to study in any verbal-based subject -- I just read the textbook at the beginning of the semester, then for all my tests I just remembered what the pages looked like and mentally re-read them for the answers. Math presented a problem, because I had to actually think rather than just look it up in my mental library.

My eldest daughter also reads like this. As a baby she would sit for hours and "read" her board books; now at 8 she often has all her library books read before we even get home from the library. She is a voracious reader. We never had to work on reading with her -- she could read a few words by 3 or so, and was reading chapter books in kindergarten.

Regarding the person who asked about reading music -- I studied classical violin for 12 years, and cannot remember ever not knowing how to read music. I started teaching my eldest daughter at age 6 and she learned to read music almost immediately. I don't have perfect pitch, but when I see a note, I know what it should sound like in my mind. It always confused me as a singer when my accompanist would transpose into a different key.

I read textbooks almost as fast as narrative books, provided they are well-written (many are not). I read mostly non-fiction, as a matter of fact -- fiction tends to bore me a bit these days, unless it's the sort where you learn lots of interesting stuff while you read it (Neal Stephenson, Umberto Eco, etc.).

I can't say that this is precisely how I read, but I also read that fast. Like one other commentator, it's something that was self-taught, it's not a product of speed reading classes or anything like that. I've averaged more than a novel a day since I was 7 years old.

I think Lois, who wrote "what a bore" doesn't understand. It's not a situation of treating reading as an Olympic sport. Those of us who have this simply read really, really fast by nature.

For me, it's not a situation where I can decide to simply slow down, that's how fast I read. Period. Of course weightier things read more slowly. Regardless, when I test out, my reading comprehension is great.

I'd love to learn more about why a handful of us have this skill. (Sometimes it's useful, sometimes it's a pain - books costs, you know.

Did anyone else have the SRA reading system in the late sixties growing up? It was a projector that would flash a whole page on the screen and a light box would move from word to word. I also taught my self to read at an early age and my 2nd grade teacher had just read about this system to help readers and the school purchased it. I burned through the system by the first three months and came out of 2nd grade with a college level reading ability(testing for comprehension and accuracy was done). It made school much more difficult for me as I was often bored and uninterested in what the teacher was saying as it often would contradict or be inaccurate to what I read and would be shamed and belittled for correcting the teacher. I continue to read quickly and often read 2 or 3 books a day. (average paperback of 350 pages) I generally take out 12-15 books from the library a week.

I'm in the minority of this comment section in confessing that I read very slowly. I'm quite envious of speed readers.

Though I love books, my pile of unread material grows ever higher as life goes on.

Reasons?: I've long had a very distracted mind, and find myself reading the same paragraph over and over again, even when I very much like the book. Moreover, I find it a very rare thing that I am able to "settle into the rhythm" of a text, especially if I'm in a chaotic or stimulating setting, like on a bus or an airplane. Finally, when I do settle into the rhythm of a book, my natural reading speed is roughly one page per minute for an average novel.

Maybe I'm just not cut out for this reading thing.

The way I describe it is perceiving words in the same way you perceive color -- you know that the object is red, or blue, or green, without having to think about it. In the same way, you recognize all the words in the sentence or paragraph. You don't have to read them one at a time, or even in order. You simply recognize them as a block.

The other way I try to describe it is understanding written English without having to translate it into spoken English inside your head. I don't have to read the word, and then say it to myself. I just read the word.

It's a handy trick, when you can read the book in the same amount of time that the movie of the book would take!

Assuming her absorption is the same as a slower reader like me, I'm jealous as hell!

I consider myself a highly intelligent person with a remarkable memory... yet I'm a painfully slow reader. And I'm even slower when I read for leisure.

Sometimes I wish I could read faster.. there are so many books, and such little time. But then again, I really do enjoy chewing on each word and getting lost in each vignette.

I just read all of Wittgenstein's works in 1 hour! No time to think about any of it though. I 've got to get through Proust in the next half hour befor lunch.

I'm another one. Learned to read at 2 1/2, read LOTR straight through at age 5 (no one believes this), and would still be reading a book a day if I weren't so busy with work. Several people in my family read the same way, so I've always known I wasn't the only one. We've always described it as reading in "chunks," absorbing one or more paragraph at a time. I can "grab" the sense of a page of text in pretty much the blink of an eye. But it's not an unalloyed good thing... if I really want to appreciate literary style, as opposed to "grabbing" the sense of a text, I have to FORCE myself to slow down and read "consciously," line by line.

"Did anyone else have the SRA reading system in the late sixties growing up? It was a projector that would flash a whole page on the screen and a light box would move from word to word."

I had something like that. I would have to read lines of text as they moved down the page. But I don't know if it was teaching me to read faster or measuring how fast I could already read.

Same story as many, in grade school they refused to let me check out Tom Sawyer until my teacher told them I could read it.

I remember sitting as a 3 year old ( I know because my brother wasn't in the picture yet!) with all of my story books piled beside me on the chair and reading them in order, saving the best for last. I guess I was reading and didn't even know it because Dick and Jane held no mysteries for me.

We were "po" growing up so I used to wait until garbage day and then go to the houses that had garage sales and take the leftover books. I got quite a unusual education that way!

Has anyone walked into your house and asked if you had really read all those books?

I do am a freakishly fast reader. I've never been able to explain how I do... while I am reading it's like I am watching a movie. If I slow down, I get lost.

Ironically, my mother says I didn't start reading early, but sometime around the age of 8, it clicked. I used to lay on the floor reading the encyclopedia.

I estimate that I can go through a 250 - 300 page paperback in about 4 hours, but unfortunately, with 5 kids I don't have time anymore. I do read about 20 blogs a day, as well as around 40 online news articles.

Still it's always annoying when normal speed readers say things like "I read slowly so I enjoy the book more"... arggggg

Hey, this describes me as well. Nice to find others out there!

I'm similar with others in terms of the main three factors discussed, it seems: (a) reading consists of vaccuuming up chunks rather than individual words; (b) I taught myself to read from a very young age (3 rather than 2, but still); and (c) it doesn't really work for textbooks. I'm an academic, and much to my dismay I've found that it doesn't work for technical papers (things with equations) either. I suppose that would be too much to ask for.

And to those who ask "why would you do that? doesn't it remove some of the enjoyment?" I can only say it's involuntary. I don't TRY to read fast; that's just my natural pace. In fact, I remember in school when we'd all read books as a class, in order to slow myself down to the pace of the class I would read the book upside down; I couldn't slow down otherwise. (Sadly, that didn't work for long, because after a while I just got used to it and could read nearly as fast upside down as rightside up).

It feels so weird to have someone even remotely come close to describing how I read. I've tried explaining to people so many times how I can read so fast, and no one can really understand. They basically just think I ignore piles of words or that I couldn't possibly retain any of the information. I was reading far above my grade level when I was younger... I read War and Peace by Tolstoy for either 4th or 5th grade and my teacher just was shocked (granted, I'm sure at that point I didn't understand the nuances of the book, but I could grasp all the content at least). I used to try to explain, but after years of failing to help people grasp the concept, I just rested on "I just read fast".

Nowadays, nonfiction or fiction, I literally rip through books. I have so many books in my library (which steadily grows, consuming all in its path), my friends start to wonder if there is any genre I won't read.

I'm so glad I stumbled across this post.... I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one!

I can read pretty fast too, in my opinion, but the way i read is different. I'll just scan over the words and see what all of them are or see what a coupe of them are(depending how fast i want to read) and then kind of put them together at the moment or afterwards. But most of the time I'll just read word by word, to appreciate the work.

This is too cool...
I just turned 18 and I'm heading off to college in the next couple months.
"Vacuum" reading would be amazing if it could be applied to academic texts. In fact, I'm envious of everybody who has this ability just for the opportunity to absorb so many books in so little time.

It sounds like you've mostly taught yourself how to read at a young age and that you have memories of always reading like this. Are there any of you out there who developed this skill later? I'd love to learn if this could happen.

Me too! I read like this as well. It's a skill. I finished 12 books last year.

Really very interesting article. Thank you for that. Best regards.

I got interested in speed reading a recent while back. What I found in my search--and readings-- is that while it is true that someone can "go over" a lot of material pretty quickly (and this is a useful skill to acquire, especially the ability to skip material, and most especially if it is related to your job), there are different kinds of reading activities, which result in different types of mental characteristics, such as retention rate, attention to detail/depth, and comprehension. The outcome also depends on the types of reading that you make, for example, you probably could not read a book about computer languages very fast unless you already have a lot of domain information about computer languages in your memory.

If I recall correctly, speed reading resulted in about the same amount of comprehension. Not sure about retention though, and certainly, reading slower allows you to think about the material you're reading much more than speed reading (there is a background process which occurs, also between sittings reading different parts of the same work), which may be more important for enjoyment of reasoning, than simply absorbing the material.

I used to be a much faster reader than I am now (not as fast as this!), but I've since forced myself to slow down. Even though I knew what was going on, I realized that I was really missing a lot of the enjoyable details of great prose--the way a phrase was turned, or a particularly lyrical passage. The 78rpm comparison works here too--I can imagine listening to a song at triple speed and still enjoying it, but it can't really move me aesthetically in the same way.

I think the problem is that my eyes' ability to quickly assemble a basic narrative outstripped my mind's ability to evoke a mood. I don't think that this is an inherent human limitation, more that I trained part of my brain to read fast without the other part keeping up.

But I do wonder if other speed readers feel the same way. Has anyone consciously tried slowing it down? If so, do you find you gain detail that isn't present in the words alone?

This is fascinating. I started reading fairly early and always read at a much higher reading level when I was in grade school and would often check out 15 or 20 books at a time from the library, but I've never been able to read quickly like this without losing a lot of the feel of the books. Depending on the writing style, my natural speed is usually somewhere around a minute per page, give or take a few seconds.

All of those who have commented have said that it is just their natural reading pace. Do you think there is any way to learn to read at your pace naturally? I would LOVE to be able to read as quickly as you do.

Kudos to Sarah! I read very quickly as well. I read over 600 books last year, counting everything from plays to anthologies to picture books to sci-fi/fantasy to horror to juvenile and teen fiction.

Many thanks to my friend who sent me this article!

I must say, I'm quite jealous of all you speed readers; my best friend reads this way, but I read at a much slower pace--probably a bit below average, in fact. This can be very frustrating and embarrassing, especially since I read very quickly as a child, and am now an avid reader, a poet, fiction writer, and just got my BA in English/creative writing. As you can imagine, it does come up quite a bit.
"Oh hey, Alex, I found this [poem/story/article/ect.] I think you'll like."
*reading...*
"Isn't it great?"
"Hang on... almost done" (Lies! Just over halfway through; now embarrassed and flustered, losing focus and reading even slower.)
*Everything is ruined forever*

Actually, I got a little carried away there, but I suppose the point would be this: We slow readers often wish we could read as fast as you speedys, but since we can't/don't, please do not act incredulous or impatient when we take longer--it will only slow us down more and make us hate you just a tiny bit. ;) Present company excluded, of course.

Ah ha, so it seems a common theme is the young age, non-conventional method of learning to read. My dad taught us to read words as pictures off flash cards. We could (siblings) all read at 3. I have three very small children ( I am a lawyer) and am still reading 4 books a week.

I find it frustrating only that you can't talk to people about the books. I have been reading 80% non-fiction for the past 4 years. I have figured that (although you can't put it on your cv) with this gift we should be able to learn a whole lot!) It's just that you bore your friends and sound like you are self promoting when you want to share or discuss what you have read.

The other thing with reading a lot is I have become very intolerant of poor writing.

Great article. Reading fast certainly has numerous benefits, not only for personal reading but technical material as well. Thanks!

Just one burning question: How?

Aside from self-teaching at 2 years old, I'd like to know if it's possible to do this as an adult that reads at ordinary speeds. I've tried speed reading techniques in the past, and perhaps given up too soon. I really, really want to learn.

I'd love to know if those of you who do it naturally think it can be taught in adults, and if any of the existing speed-reading courses do it justice.

PS: I'm in the LA area and will meet with anyone in the vicinity willing to let me watch them read !

 
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