Speed Reading on Web and Mobile

“Hi, my name is Chris, and I’m a Read-aholic.”

I

‘ll be the first to admit that I’m a reading junkie, but unfortunately there isn’t (yet) a 12 step program to help me.  I love reading lots of different types of things across an array of platforms (books, newspapers, magazines, computer, web, phone, tablet, apps) and topics (fiction/non-fiction and especially history, biography, economics, popular science, etc.).  My biggest problem and one others surely face is time.

There are so many things I want to read, and far too little time to do it in.  Over the past several years, I’ve spent an almost unreasonable amount of time thinking about what I consume and (possibly more importantly) how to intelligently consume more of it. I’ve spent so much time delving into it that I’ve befriended a professor and fellow renaissance man (literally and figuratively) who gave me a personal thank you in his opening to a best-selling book entitled “The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in an Age of Distraction.”

Information Consumption

At least twice a year I look at my reading consumption and work on how to improve it, all the while trying to maintain a level of quality and usefulness in what I’m consuming and why I’m consuming it.

  • I continually subscribe to new and interesting sources.
  • I close off subscriptions to old sources that I find uninteresting, repetitive (goodbye echo chamber), and those that are (or become) generally useless.
  • I carefully monitor the huge volumes of junk email that end up in my inbox and trim down on the useless material that I never seem to read, so that I’ll have more time to focus on what is important.
  • I’ve taken up listening to audiobooks to better utilize my time in the car while commuting.
  • I’ve generally quit reading large swaths of social media for their general inability to uncover truly interesting sources.
  • I’ve used some portions of social media to find other interesting people collating and curating areas I find interesting, but which I don’t have the time to read through everything myself.  Why waste my time reading hundreds of articles, when I can rely on a small handful of people to read them and filter out the best of the best for myself? Twitter lists in particular are an awesome thing.
  • I’ve given up on things like “listicles” or stories from internet click farm sources like BuzzFeed which can have some truly excellent linkbait-type headlines, but I always felt like I’ve completely wasted my time clicking through to them.

A New Solution

About six months ago in the mountain of tech journalism I love reading, I ran across a site launch notice about a tech start-up called Spritz which promised a radically different solution for the other side of the coin relating to my reading problem: speeding the entire process up!  Unfortunately, despite a few intriguing samples at the time (and some great details on the problem and their solution), they weren’t actually delivering a product.

Well, all that seems to have changed in the past few weeks. I’ve waited somewhat patiently and occasionally checked back on their progress, but following a recent mention on Charlie Rose, and some serious digging around on the broader internet, I’ve found some worthwhile tools that have sprouted out of their efforts.  Most importantly, Spritz itself now has a bookmarklet that seems to deliver on their promise of improving my reading speeds for online content. With the bookmarklet installed, one can go to almost any web article, click on the bookmarklet and then sit back and just read at almost any desired speed.  Their technology uses a modified version of the 1970’s technology known as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) to speed up your reading ability, but does so in a way that is easier to effectuate with web and mobile technologies.  Essentially they present words serially in the same position on your screen with an optimized center mass so that one’s eyes stay still while reading instead of doing the typical saccaddic eye movements which occur with typical reading – and slow the process down.

 

A photo of how Spritz works for speed reading on the web.
Spritz for speed reading the web.

 

As a biomedical engineer, I feel compelled to note the interesting physiologic phenomenon that if one sits in a rotatable chair and spins with one’s eyes closed and their fingers lightly placed on their eyelids, one will feel the eye’s saccades even though one isn’t actually seeing anything.

Spritz also allows one to create an account and log in so that the service will remember your previously set reading speed. Their website does such a great job of explaining their concept, I’ll leave it to the reader to take a peek; but you may want to visit their bookmarklet page directly, as their own website didn’t seem to have a link to it initially.

As a sample of how Spritz works on the web, OysterBooks is hosting a Spritz-able version of Stephen R. Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Naturally, Spritz’s solution is not a catch-all for everything I’d like to read, but it covers an interesting subcategory that will make things useful and easier.  Though trying to speed read journal articles, textbooks, and other technical literature isn’t the best idea in the world, Spritz will help me plow through more fiction and more leisurely types of magazine and online articles that are of general interest. I generally enjoy and appreciate these types of journalism and work, but just can’t always justify taking the time away from more academic pursuits to delve into them. Some will still require some further thought after-the-fact to really get their full value out of them, but at least I can cover the additional ground without wasting all the additional time to do so. I find I can easily double or triple my usual reading speed without any real loss of comprehension.

In the last week or so since installing a my several new speed reading bookmarklets, I’ve begun using them almost religiously in my daily reading regimen.

I’ll also note in passing that some studies suggest that this type of reading modality has helped those who face difficulties with dyslexia.

A picture of the Spritz RSVP reading interface featuring the word Boffosocko.
How to read Boffosocko faster than you though you could…

 

Speed Reading Competition

Naturally, since this is a great idea, there’s a bit of competition in the speed reading arena.

There are a small handful of web and app technologies which are built upon the RSVP concept:

  • Clayton Morris has also developed an iOS application called ReadQuick, which is based on the same concept as Spritz, but is only available via app and not on web.
  • Rich Jones has developed a program called OpenSpritz.  His version is opensource and has an Android port for mobile.
  • There’s also another similar bookmarklet called Squirt which also incorporates some nice UI tweaks and some of the technology from Readability as well.
  • For those wishing to Spritz .pdf or .txt documents, one can upload them using Readsy which uses Spritz’s open API to allow these types of functionalities.
  • There are also a variety of similar free apps in the Google Play store which follow the RSVP technology model.
  • Those on the Amazon (or Kindle Fire/Android Platform) will appreciate the Balto App which utilizes RSVP and is not only one of the more fully functional apps in the space, but it also has the ability to unpack Kindle formatted books (i.e. deal with Amazon’s DRM) to allow speed reading Kindle books. While there is a free version, the $1.99 paid version is more than well worth the price for the additional perks.

On and off for the past couple of years, I’ve also used a web service and app called Readfa.st which is a somewhat useful, but generally painful way to improve one’s speed reading. It also has a handy bookmarklet, but just wasn’t as useful as I had always hoped it might be. It’s interesting, but not as interesting or as useful as Spritz (and other RSVP technology) in my opinion since it feels more fatiguing to read in this manner

 

Bookmarklet Junkie Addendum

In addition to the handful of speed reading bookmarklets I’ve mentioned above, I’ve got over 50 bookmarklets in a folder on my web browser toolbar. I easily use about a dozen on a daily basis. Bookmarklets make my internet world much prettier, nicer, and cleaner with a range of simple clever code.  Many are for URL shortening, sharing content to a variety of social networks quickly, but a large number of the ones I use are for reading-related tasks which I feel compelled to include here: web clippers for Evernote and OneNote, Evernote’s Clearly, Readability, Instapaper, Pocket, Mendeley (for reading journal articles), and GoodReads.

Do you have a favorite speed reading application (or bookmarklet)?

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Author: Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

7 thoughts on “Speed Reading on Web and Mobile”

  1. Reply to post on Scott Young’s site: In addition to your thoughts above, I’d also highly recommend people take a look at Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) technology which is primarily headed by Spritz (though there are a multitude of knock-offs on the market). The basic premise is that the technology helps to prevent subvocalization while also simultaneously getting rid of seccadic eye movements. I don’t find it as useful for technical reading, but magazine articles, newspapers, and most fiction work well with this method. I’ve written a bit about it here: http://boffosocko.com/2014/06/10/speed-reading-on-web-and-mobile/

    Based on psychology research for plateauing, one can continually increase one’s speed by pushing one’s limit up several hundred wpm and then backing off a bit, which will make the speed seem slower than just prior, but still faster than previous bests. I’m sure there’s some upper hard limit, but I now find reading at 800+wpm very comfortable without losing comprehension significantly.

    via chrisaldrich.withknown.com

  2. I come from Germany and live currently in Australia so please forgive my English. I am just writing because I am getting bothered with the question if speed reading is really possible. There are many negative comments about speed reading which makes me confuse if that skill is possible to achieve. There are many good books out there but it takes me quite a while to finish it. You wrote that you can read up to 800wpm.

    I wanted ask if its possible to get some advice about learning. I tried Tony Buzon’s speed reading book until chapter 7, and my speed was going up, but unfortunately the comprehension was going down. Is there a way to fix that?

    I am sorry that I bother, but getting any advice would be awesome!

    Thank you

    1. Karl,

      Thanks for your query. Your English is actually quite good.

      Yes, speed reading is possible while still maintaining comprehension. The difficult part when doing classical speed reading (using printed texts) is forcing yourself to keep plowing forward even though you’re not quite getting everything in an effort to not “plateau”. (This post by Brain Pickings has a short and simple discussion on the “OK Plateau”, which you can also read more about on the web as well as in psychology journals including the work of psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner. Josh Foer also discusses the concept and some of the research literature in his book Moonwalking with Einstein, and if I recall Malcolm Gladwell also covers some of it in his book Outliers too.) Practicing the techniques for a while (perhaps on texts that aren’t as important to you) can certainly help significantly.

      Most of the speed reading I do these days is via one of the apps I mentioned in my post (primarily Spritz), so that getting stuck at a particular plateau isn’t as difficult. To increase my speed, I’ll push up the programmed speed by 100-150 words per minute for a few minutes and then drop it back down to 50-100 words per minute. This way I’m still 50-100 wpm faster than I had been previously, and (not so) surprisingly the new speed often feels almost slow while still being manageable. I’m sure there’s some eventual upper limit for speed, but why not push the boundaries?

      These days I primarily only speed read newspaper and magazine articles and fiction which I read for pleasure or enjoyment/entertainment. For me trying to read advanced mathematical or technical texts at high speeds just doesn’t work and I suspect it never will as they take more thought to digest than most narrative form writing which can be read at much higher speeds. Another thing that can be very helpful is to read the first chapter or two (of a novel for example) to familiarize yourself with the characters and setting after which speed reading through the remainder is much simpler to digest since you have a better idea of the players and location which are often stumbling blocks for comprehension when reading longer works at higher speeds.

      As a note for the tyro speed readers: While I’ve skimmed through several books on speed reading in the past (decades ago) and while they can be helpful/useful, I think that using one of the (mostly) self-explanatory speed reading apps I’ve mentioned above can help you read much faster without having read any of the speed reading “literature”.

      You might also find this short article “Double Your Reading Rate” by Scott Young useful as it sums up most of the books pretty quickly and aptly.

      Good luck!

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