How a Mormon housewife sold America the big speed-reading scamSeptember 21, 2019
The last thing Evelyn Wood, the matriarch of speed-reading, expected in 1961 was for somebody to call her a fraud.
Her method, which she called “Reading Dynamics,” could purportedly help anybody read thousands of words per minute. It had captured the nation’s imagination since 1958, when Wood launched the first of her speed-reading institutes in Washington, DC.
The media gushed, with Time magazine even nicknaming her followers in 1960 “Woodmen.”
“A Woodman,” Time wrote, “can mop up ‘Dr. Zhivago’ in an hour.”
Wood had grown accustomed to unquestioning praise. But in December 1961, during a demonstration with two of her prize students at a reading conference in Fort Worth, Texas, she was ambushed by George Spache, a professor at the University of Florida and director of the university’s reading clinic.
In front of an audience of 200, Spache demanded proof.
“He pointed to an adjoining room where a device used to test eye movements was set up,” Marcia Biederman writes in her new biography, “Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked” (Chicago Review Press), out now.
“Spache clearly intended to photograph her demonstrators’ eye movements as they read and test them on comprehension.”
Wood declined and according to a letter written by a graduate student in attendance, Spache responded with “snide remarks” and “suggested quite openly that she was obviously afraid to let them test the boys.”
This isn’t the story that’s usually told of Evelyn Wood, once dubbed “the most famous reading teacher in the world” during the ’60s and ’70s. Her speed-reading revolution is remembered for converting three presidents — Kennedy, Nixon and Carter — and wowing everyone from Steve Allen to Burt Lancaster to Johnny Carson.
By 1961, Reading Dynamics classes — priced at around $150 for 30 class hours — were offered in 56 cities and brought in annual revenues of over $2.5 million. A Texas newspaper warned at the time, “If you can’t read and understand 3,000 to 4,000 words a minute, you’re definitely ‘out’ of the New Frontier.”
But was the “New Frontier” everything it promised? Wood refused all scientific scrutiny, believing that the testimonials of her satisfied customers counted as “subjective evidence.”
Biederman suggests that the way Wood peddled speed-reading was “eerily similar to themes in the Broadway show ‘The Music Man,’ ” where a traveling con man convinced parents that “their children can learn to play an instrument by ‘thinking’ the notes.”
According to Biederman, Wood was making the same smoke-and-mirrors sales pitch.
Born and raised in Logan, Utah, Wood at first seemed destined for a modest life as the wife of a Mormon missionary. But in 1947, as a graduate student in speech therapy at the University of Utah, she stumbled upon “her life’s work,” writes Biederman.