Speed Reading with Spritz

Sunset over the sea

A few weeks ago My Honey asked me what I thought of Spritz, a speed reading technology that’s currently used in about a dozen different apps across various platforms. Resisting the impulse to scoff, I managed to say, quite neutrally, “Why, I know nothing about Spritz. I’ll take a look at it, and let you know.”**

Appropriately, the Spritz website uses Spritz technology to introduce itself, doling out words, one at a time, at speeds from 100wpm upwards. At 100wpm, words plod past with sloth-like deliberation. At 700wpm, they buzzzzzzzzz. At 250wpm, Spritz flashes robotically, “Instead of you constantly moving your eyes to grasp the words, now they are streamed to you. Just keep your eyes on the red character and relax.”

Relax. Relax! Ree-laaaaaax…

There are many things I find relaxing. Indulging my predilection for long, hot baths immediately springs to mind, as does sitting on a tropical beach watching the sunset. (It’s really, really cold here in Melbourne at the moment!) Reading is also high on my list of relaxing-things-to-do, particularly around bedtime. Escapist fiction, engrossing non-fiction, eloquent writing of any kind that invites contemplation—all of it prompts me to slow down and sink into the text. In this context, a technology like Spritz has no place. As Bob Boffard wrote in the Guardian,“reading a novel on Spritz is like riding a unicycle from Shepherd’s Bush to Brick Lane. You can do it, but there are far more pleasant and logical ways to get there”.

To be fair, evangelical speed reading enthusiasts tend not to focus on revelling in witty dialogue, decoding textual subtitles, or giving free rein to imagination, but rather on cramming in ‘more’ for work and/or study, because…well, I’m not exactly sure why. Even the most prosaic, fact-oriented non-fiction relies on varying weightings of words to convey meaning, something that Spritz’s hyper-controlled, parsimonious revelation of text makes no allowance for. And of course if information is genuinely valuable, you need time to absorb and synthesise it. Having taken pains during my work life to render user documentation, business cases, forms, requirements—the whole business shebang—into simple language that promotes comprehension, I feel this quite keenly.

In his 2014 article, The Truth About Speed Reading,  Thorin Klosowski concluded, “Speed reading anything you need to truly comprehend is probably a bad idea. However, if you have a few documents you need to get through, or you’re reading something that isn’t that important, these methods can still be worthwhile.” It’s a generous, yet suspect concession. If I don’t need to comprehend something, why do I need to ‘get through it’?  And to be honest, I already read more fluff-text than is good for me. It tumble-weeds around my brain, clogging my intellect and my creativity, making me sluggish. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

It’s possible that technologies like Spritz will evolve over time, adapting to the demands of genuine language comprehension. That would be an interesting development. It’s also possible that they’ll precipitate a new media era, in which savvy marketers will write to the limitations of the technology. Yikes.

Which scenario is more likely?

When My Honey originally asked me about Spritz, he was coming to the end of reading Moby Dick. He’d been wading through it for months, periodically telling me how it needed a good, hard edit. With ten pages to go, he did his own Spritz experiment, in the interest, he insisted, of ending the torture. Turns out Spritzing Moby Dick was even more torturous than reading it the usual way. So My-sensible-Honey ditched the technology, and re-read those last ten pages the way Melville no doubt intended.

My Honey’s verdict? In the end, it was all worthwhile.


** It’ entirely possible that I’ve misrepresented the maturity of my initial response to My Honey’s question about Spritz. Point is I overcame my propensity to automatically dismiss speed-reading, and actually took the time to give Spritz a go.

Imagination and the Thinking Child

Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireAccording to a recent blog post (The Imagination of the Child) by the principal of an alternative school in the UK, contemporary fantasy fiction is a threat to children’s mental health, and parents who don’t restrict their children’s access to such fiction are feckless. The UK Guardian, Telegraph, and Independent, all published online articles about the danger and absurdity of the principal’s claim that works works by Shelly, Dickens and Shakespeare were better suited to the ‘innocence’ of children than works by Tolkien, Rowling, and Suzanne Collins. Truth be told, the principal’s blog post is not as straightforward as it’s been portrayed. Rather it is a hot mess of psychobabble and Luddism delivered with poor English expression. I particularly liked the bit where he states that children “do not have thinking brains until, at the earliest, fourteen years of age.”

Say what?

I’m 100% confident that almost-7yo Rainbow Girl has a thinking brain, and a highly imaginative thinking brain it is too. She loves a good fantasy story, and she loves role playing her favourite characters. Occasionally, very thoughtfully, she will check in with us about what is real, and what is not real, and will even ask “What does this mean?” because she knows, as an experienced consumer of fairy tales, that sometimes meaning is not literal. When you have the life experience of a 7yo it can be difficult to pin down meaning without help, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sense that there is more to things than meets the eye.

This is not to say that Rainbow Girl is never scared by fantasy fiction. When she was around three years old she would ask for Red Riding Hood without the Wolf (that’s the story where Red Riding Hood takes lemonade and cake to her Grandmother’s house and they have a nice tea…)  More recently she decided to take a break from Harry Potter about one hundred pages into The Goblet of Fire, because Voldemort was giving her nightmares. As a parent I don’t feel like her Voldemort nightmares were a sign of deteriorating mental health anymore than her nightmares about sandcastles washing out to sea are a sign that her ‘innocence’ has in someway been violated. Indeed sandcastles washing out to sea epitomise transience, a matter that it is right and proper for her to recognise and explore, even as a child. Placing The Goblet of Fire back on the shelf was an easy fix for the nighttime Voldemort woes. If only the sandcastle business was as straightforward.

But back to the school principal. One of the things he made reference to in his blog post was sensationalism. To me there is a kind of irony here in the way the media latched on to his strange, rambling blog post, stirring up a blip of internet outrage against a man’s belief that The Old is more wholesome fare for the young than The New. I look at the same blog post and see a school principal who underestimates his students, whose grasp of grammar and clear thinking is questionable, and who is quite possibly is not as mentally robust as he proclaims. I hope, for the sake of his students that their parents recognise there is a problem here, and take appropriate action.