Dad’s Advice on Reading and Speeding it Up (and Why JFK Called Him on It)
Harry Zubkoff was a voracious reader and book collector; he pored through several books a week for pleasure during most of his life. He filled bookcases and shelves throughout the house and kept a hefty stack on his bedside table. It wasn’t easy getting him to part with his books each time he moved to a more suitable home.
Harry emailed the essay below to a young correspondent in 2010, at age 88. As in other newfound essays on this blog, he imparts advice through a personal tale. By the way, I shortened this one; I never had the pleasure of editing Harry’s writings until I started this blog. You see, it was always the other way around – I’d go to him for editing tips and creative quips (and thoughts on office politics).
No matter what profession you choose for your life’s career, one of the most important skills you can acquire is reading. Reflect on this for a moment. We learn to read beginning in kindergarten and develop that skill through the early grades of elementary school. Certainly, by the time we’re 8 or 10 years old, normally we have mastered the skill of reading. Right? Wrong!
The trouble is, most people never progress much beyond the basic reading skill they’ve mastered by the time they’ve reached 6th grade. The average reading speed of a high school student today is 350 to 400 words a minute, with a comprehension quotient of 85 to 90 percent.
I am as ordinary as they come. I have had to wear glasses to read since I was in high school. Near-sighted, but distance and depth perception is okay. I qualify for a commercial pilot’s license, where the vision requirements are stringent, but I need glasses to read a map flight chart. My starting reading speed was about 500 words a minute, slightly better than average, but not extraordinary.
Take a course or do it yourself
Then I took a speed-reading course offered after hours at the Pentagon. One hour once a week for eight weeks. They measure your speed and test you for comprehension. At the end of the course I was reading 2,000 words a minute with 90 percent comprehension. I took the course two more times, six months apart. By the end of the third time, I was reading 4,000 words a minute. Over the next few years I regressed somewhat and finally settled down to about 3,000 words a minute – still respectable but not outstanding.
You have to force yourself to keep pushing it if you want to go above 3,000. BTW, these speeds are for light reading, like novels or magazine stories. For heavier stuff, like newspaper reports or study materials it goes down even further. No matter how much it slows down, however, it is still faster than the average speed of less than 500.
You don’t have to take the course to increase your speed. Some things you can do yourself, or force yourself to do. I should also mention that I was so enthusiastic about the course and recommended it so highly that they made it available to anyone in the Pentagon during working hours and supervisors could give their employees time off (with pay). I made everyone in my office take the course, some of them twice.
What they do in the course is, with a special camera, take a picture of your eyes as you’re reading. What they found was that everybody has the same bad habit. When you read a line, your eyes go back and scan the same line again. Why that happens, nobody knows. But in effect, you are reading that line twice. As soon as you become conscious of that fact, you can start forcing yourself to stop it. By stopping your eye from going back and scanning the line again, you can save a fraction of a second per line. Force yourself to go on to the next line and the next, etc., without going back to scan twice.
When you have mastered that, you will already have increased your speed considerably. The next step is to try to read a whole line at a time. Stop trying to read each word. You know, as we read we unconsciously mouth each word in our minds. Stop yourself from looking at each word. Stop thinking each word in our minds. Try to take the whole line into your head at once and then go on to the next line. In effect, take a picture of the whole line in your mind and then the next line and so forth till you get through the whole page. After doing this till you can do it without thinking, the next step is to try to take a whole paragraph at once. Now this may sound impossible, but believe me, it can be done.
Just master each step along the way and you’d be surprised at what your mind can do.
A presidential anecdote
In the early 1960s, after Secretary of Defense McNamara had designated the Air Force as his Executive Agent to do what we had been doing for the Air Force – to do it for the whole Dept. of Defense and all its agencies, we started getting requests from other government agencies to provide copies of our publications for them. The White House was one of those agencies; specifically, the Office of the Press Secretary and the National Security Advisor asked us to send them material pertinent to their interests.
By the summer of 1963, I was sending the Press Secretary several dozen articles a day of special interest to the President, and he, the Press Secretary, Pierre Salinger, used to call me once or twice a week to ask for things. So a call from him was not unusual. One day, when I had sent him a really heavy bundle of articles to read, he called and the conversation went like this.
“Harry,” he said, “somebody here wants to talk with you.”
“Okay,” I said, “put him on.”
Next voice I heard: “Harry? This is Jack Kennedy.” As though I didn’t recognize that distinctive voice.
“Yes, Mr. President,” I had enough presence of mind to say.
“These articles you send me,” he said. “Do you read them all yourself?”
“Yes, sir,” I managed.
“Well, I just wondered,” he said. “I read about 4,000 words a minute myself and I have a hard time keeping up with it, along with all the other things I have to read. How fast do you read?”
“Oh,” I said, “I read close to 4,000 a minute, too, Mr. President. Do you want me to cut back on these things?”
“No, no,” he said. “I just want to be sure that you suffer as much as I do. Keep it coming, and thanks.”
“Thank you, Mr. President,” I said, but, in truth, I’m not sure if he hadn’t already hung up.
I also recall that at a press conference some reporter asked him how he thought the press was treating him and he replied with that famous smile, “I’m reading more and enjoying it less.”