Scan Artist

Author Marcia Biederman on speed-reading promoter Evelyn Wood, “the best-known educator of the twentieth century and a scammer in cashmere.”

Scan Artist Marcia Biederman

In the nineteen nineteen-sixties, -seventies, and -eighties—before the rise of the personal computer and search engines—doing research was labor-intensive and time consuming. In fact, it often necessitated a trip to the library and scrolling through the card catalog to find the required books and materials.

“In those days it was necessary to skim a lot of material to try to search for things,” says Marcia Biederman, author of “Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked” (Chicago Review Press). “People were in shock with all the information that was available and no way to sort it out, and they wanted to be as efficient as machines.”

So it’s perhaps no surprise that hundreds of thousands of people were willing to risk their time and money on an Evelyn Wood speed-reading course, which claimed to teach users how to read thousands of words per minute, guided by a “finger-pacing system” that would lead the eyes to view blocks of text or even whole pages at a time. Never mind that you could “practice running your hand down a page on your own and accomplish almost all of value that the course teaches,” quipped one consumer advocate.

In “Scan Artist,” Biederman recounts the life and career of Evelyn Wood (1909-95), a self-proclaimed reading expert whose Reading Dynamics course did little to improve speed without loss of comprehension. Predictably, Wood blamed student failures on user error or lack of confidence, telling one young student that “If there is any doubt in your mind about ultimate success, I promise that you will fail…. You must have a desire to try and the will to succeed.”

In the following Failure Interview, Biederman discusses how Wood became a household name, why critics weren’t able to bring her down, and how she fared financially in the wake of her marketing successes.

How did you get the idea for “Scan Artist”?

I’m a former student. I took an Evelyn Wood course myself, and having learned nothing from it I feel totally ashamed that I begged my parents for the money. I was overwhelmed by the reading load at college, so I took the course and was almost immediately underwhelmed. It seemed so fraudulent from the end of the first lesson on. But I didn’t write “Scan Artist” to wreak vengeance. In fact, I hadn’t given it [Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics] much thought for decades.

What was Wood like as a person?

She was a Mormon and a very religious person. Her parents and her husband were also very religious and her husband was an important figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

She was also an ends justifies the means person in regard to a lot of things. For example, she adopted a child out of foster care but it was for pragmatic reasons. The couple used her as a helper around the house and to provide child care for their younger biological daughter. Evelyn would say she had one daughter when she really had two, or she’d say she had two when that was convenient. She was very capable of self-deceit and her ethics were situational.

How did Wood come to fame? She wasn’t the first to promote speed-reading, right?

She had a very charismatic personality, she loved having an audience, and she also knew how to do casting, as besides religion her main passion was theatre. She sold the course through demonstrations, and selected the right young people to do those demonstrations.

It was also extremely helpful that Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics was located in Washington, D.C., in that important political figures signed on early and sang the praises of her course in their testimonials.

Also, her company succeeded in connecting John F. Kennedy to the Evelyn Wood name. I found no evidence that JFK himself thought her method was any better than any other speed-reading method. However, he was convinced that speed-reading worked, and the whole Kennedy lifestyle was approved of by most of the American public.

Why was the public so open to embracing speed-reading in her time?

The country was going through a post-war transition from blue-collar work to white-collar work and people whose parents had worked in factories were now middle managers or salespeople. The main consumers of the Evelyn Wood course were college students and male professionals. In the case of male professionals, many of them had never had to read that much before. They needed to keep up with the competition and do presentations, and they felt insecure.

The Evelyn Wood method really traded on insecurity and I was an example. I was not coping very well with the reading load in college and I thought the course would be a magic bullet. I believed it worked because I thought that JFK endorsed it, because the company was putting JFK’s name together with their brand name. Also, I knew for sure that Senators William Proxmire and Stuart Symington, both of whom my family admired, had endorsements.

Who were the most significant proponents of Reading Dynamics?

William Proxmire was number one because he didn’t get any money for his endorsement, which he allowed the company to run—in newspapers and on radio and television—for decades. Proxmire loved publicity and is remembered for inventing the Golden Fleece Award, [a dubious honor] that was designed to draw attention to companies, colleges, and universities for spending money on what he thought were worthless projects that were wasting the taxpayers’ money. He invented that award because he got a lot of publicity from it. So although he wasn’t paid directly by Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics he got his name out there nationally and that was a goal of his.

Then there were movie stars like Burt Lancaster, who took private lessons, as well as Charlton Heston and Queen Ingrid of Denmark.

When did Reading Dynamics hit its peak in popularity and how big did it get?

It was popular until the 1980s. It enrolled half a million between 1959 and 1970, and then there was a trickle toward another half million, allegedly, into the early eighties. Then the media soured on it—or at least started to question it and take quotes from skeptics.

Who were the most prominent critics?

Well, they didn’t become very prominent, but there were critics from the very beginning. Reading Dynamics was thoroughly debunked very early on, but it got a boost from the lack of media skepticism.

[As for the critics], there was a Harvard Business School professor, George W. Gibson, and then there was George Spache, who was at the University of Florida. Spache was threatened with a lawsuit by Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics and that had a chilling effect.

The Saturday Evening Post was the first mass market publication [to criticize the method], and published a very entertaining article by Eugene Ehrlich called “Speed Reading is the Bunk” [in 1962].

But the person that really turned on Wood was one of her protégées, William Liddle, and it was because he had kept an open mind. He was a doctoral student who was teaching a course with her and was impressed by her, but he believed things should be tested, which is not something she wanted.

Liddle did the first controlled experiment, and found that if you read very rapidly you will not comprehend what you read. Wood went on to distort his findings in a paper that she published and Liddle was never heard from much again. It shows that you didn’t gain anything from being an Evelyn Wood skeptic. You got threatened with lawsuits and got disparaged.

Did Wood and her husband get rich?

She and her husband sold the company early on. They didn’t make a lot of money but the ten investors [who bought it] did, because they went on to sell it to Famous Artists Schools in 1967 for $3.7 million, which was undoubtedly much more than what they paid Evelyn and her husband. She didn’t have an ownership stake but remained a public figure and a consultant for the rest of her life, not earning a lot of money but definitely remaining a proponent of the method.

So she didn’t get rich, but she created a job for her and her husband for the rest of their careers and that’s what she was looking for.

What role did media appearances play in the program’s marketing success?

Those helped a lot. Certainly the Johnny Carson appearance in 1976 with Beth Jaffe gave it a huge shot in the arm and that together with a hip new advertising strategy revived the business in the mid-1970s.

Do speed-reading marketers still exist?

Sure. If you go online and start clicking on the clickbait for speed-reading courses and apps, you become a target of the marketing. For people who are insecure and overwhelmed there are still ways for them to waste their money.