"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 6 January 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Speed Reading Between the Lines



The true bandwidth bottleneck of

the Information Age is the

sluggardly rate of human

comprehension. And while the

telecommunications industry is

doing absolutely nothing to

solve this problem, Howard

Stephen Berg, the latest star of

Kevin Trudeau's Vantage Point

infomercial series, has stepped

up to offer his Mega Speed

Reading Program as the path to

transcend the limits of our

bundled wetware.


[Berg and Trudeau]

Dubbed the World's Fastest Reader

by that ultimate arbiter of

esoteric supremacy, the Guinness

Book of World Records, the pudgy

prelector assimilates entire

books in about the same amount

of time it takes the average

page-turner to get through a

typical Nicholson Baker

footnote. But to describe what

Berg does merely as "speed

reading" or even "mega speed

reading" fails to do justice to

his audacious, absolutely

straight-faced performance. With

his mesmerizing, back-and-forth

hand motions and superefficient

page-turning technique, Berg

appears as nothing less than an

ArtiScan incarnate.



The surprisingly charismatic Berg

resembles a blend of Seinfeld's

Newman and the turtle-like

Truman Capote, but his corpulent

appearance belies his supreme

salesmanship skills. As he scans

the multigigabyte hard drive of

his brain, he is in the habit of

tilting his melon-sized head

backward and rolling his eyes

upward as if to consult the crib

notes he's pasted to the

ceiling; in moments like that,

he somehow manages to project

both a vivid sense of mastery

and a phenomenal


quotient. In addition, Berg

possesses a world-class

infomercial voice: an insistent

but affable nasal whine,

resonant with the goatish

diphthongs and sharp

contractions of Brooklyn

street-corners. He's abrasive

enough to break through the

Teshian white noise of 50

channels, and once he's snared

the restless channel-surfer's

attention, his fast-paced,

giggle-prone patter proves

remarkably compelling.


The infomercial itself is a

stripped-down, old-school

huckster's affair. There's no

unbelievably enthusiastic

audience, no dubious,

talking-head testimonials, no

hokey Premiere transition tricks -

just two impeccably groomed

men behind an anchorman's desk,

discussing the many benefits of

reading really, really, really

fast. In the first several

minutes, a winning formula is

established: Trudeau gestures

emphatically, gives Berg a book

to read, watches pop-eyed as

Berg passes his hand over the

book's pages, then quizzes Berg

about what he just read. After

this initial sequence, they

repeat the process four more

times with different books;

soon, the requisite 30 minutes

have been filled.



While Trudeau's inexhaustible

reservoir of incredulousness -

"I can't believe he's reading!"

begins to controvert his -

self-proclaimed status as the

world's leading memory expert,

one has to admire the dogged

simplicity of the show's

approach. One trick, repeated

over and over and over, until it

achieves a kind of irrational

credibility. In the best

infomercial tradition, Berg

never attempts to explain his

technique; he simply says that

his program unlocks one's

"natural ability" to read

quickly. For the lazy, he offers

the assurance that his program

takes less than four hours to

learn. For the tenuously

literate, he explains that even

the severely brain-damaged and

the blind have benefited from

his instruction!


If such claims begin to sound a

little, uh, unprecedented, one

has to remember: Berg is a

revolutionary, a linguistic

maverick constantly

demonstrating his break from

traditional notions of literacy.

There's his penchant for

introducing wonderfully

euphonious coinages such as

"reciprocant." Or his tendency

to shun conventional

pronunciation in lieu of more

evocative variants - "vignette"

with a hard "g" appears to be a

favorite. Most of all, of

course, there's his ability to

digest whole chapters in

seconds, and then recall their

entire contents with remarkable



Well, maybe "remarkable" is too

strong a word. In fact, in the

one instance where I was able to

check the accuracy of Berg's

comprehension, I was fairly

disappointed. It occurs when

Trudeau hands him a copy of Dale

Carnegie's How To Win Friends

and Influence People;

coincidentally, I happened to

have that title in my own vast

library of self-help literature.

Responding to Trudeau's request

to summarize the book's sixth

chapter, which he has just spent

several seconds reading, Berg

explains that Carnegie tries to

cheer up a depressed postal

employee he knows by telling him

how important he is. However,

when I checked the book's text,

I found that Carnegie actually

characterizes the postal worker

as a "stranger," not someone he

knows, and as "bored" rather

than "depressed." Most

significantly, instead of

telling the man how important he

is, Carnegie simply says, "I

certainly wish I had your head

of hair."


Given the gimcrack élan of

Berg's entire presentation,

however, a tiny comprehension

mishap like that hardly even

registers. After all, isn't Berg

essentially the Evel Knievel of

speed reading, performing

high-risk stunts no other

bookworm has even dared to

attempt? As such, he's bound to

crash now and then. And since

his Mega Speed Reading program

takes less than four hours to

complete, what do you have to

lose except a few missed

episodes of Cops and Real TV?


Well, $169.95 if you actually pay

for it; luckily, I obtained a

review copy.



Following the course's

instructions, I picked a book to

practice with - Yes, I Can: The

Story of Sammy Davis, Jr. - then

determined my current reading

speed, which turned out to be a

relatively torpid 375 words per

minute. Not that I was too

dismayed about this embarrassing

failure of intellectual prowess.

Soon, I knew, I would be turning

pages as fast as a

callus-fingered Evelyn Wood



As it turns out, that much is

true. I have totally mastered

Berg's page-turning technique;

in fact, if I forsake the

reading part, I can actually

flip something like 110 pages a

minute. In addition, I also

found Berg's advice about using

one's hand to pace one's eye

helpful. The rest of his

techniques, however, either

eluded me or were so obvious or

general that they hardly

qualified as "revolutionary

breakthroughs." Here's a

representative sampling from his

bag of tricks: read backwards,

read passages you're already

familiar with at a high speed,

always study a book's table of

contents and index, use

mnemonics to remember things.



Reading backwards appears to be

Berg's unique selling

proposition; to his credit, he

manages to present the idea with

a fairly convincing measure of

sincerity, even when

rationalizing the feasibility of

such an endeavour by explaining

that many languages, including

Hebrew and some Asiatic ones,

are read backwards. Of course,

this isn't true at all - such

languages are simply read right

to left, which to their readers

is "forward." But maybe it's the

adherence to such common sense

that keeps me a slow-witted

mouth-reader while Berg is

making TV shows, moving product,

and captivating the likes of

Regis and Kathie Lee. In short,

if you have no need to approach

reading as a sequential

activity, reading backwards

apparently works just fine.



Unfortunately, I showed no

aptitude for that skill, which

is perhaps why at the end of the

program my reading speed

increased only marginally, to

500 words per minute. (A full

hundred words less than the

brain-damaged woman who took

Berg's course, I'm somewhat

embarrassed to admit.) Maybe I

simply wasn't concentrating hard

enough. Certainly, the course's

$169.95 price tag was a constant

distraction: How many people, I

kept wondering, had paid that

price only to hear superficial

comprehension tips or Berg

enthusiastically shouting the

index of some unnamed psychology

book: "Dog! Drooling! Pavlov!

Russian! Psychologist!




Actually, that surreal moment was

probably worth $5 itself,

putting the total value of the

package at around $20. If cost

of goods precludes such a low

price, maybe Berg can strike a

deal with a publishing house, or

even a coalition of them, to

subsidize Mega Speed Reading's

production and marketing so it's

affordable to everyone. Imagine

an entire nation of

speed-readers, devouring the

likes of Infinite Jest in a

single bus ride. A tiny

percentage of the profits from a

revitalized publishing industry

could turn Berg into the next

Bill Gates.



Of course, such a prospect is

based on the notion that Mega

Speed Reading actually works; I

guess the infomercial strategy

is a safer way to play it. But

why stop there? If Berg's

program offers mostly

entertainment value, why not

turn it into programming?

Fledgling networks like WB and

UPN are starved for innovative

content: Berg, Trudeau, and a

few other infomercial superheros

like Don Lapre and Marshall

Sylver could be the A-Team (or

B-Team, adjusting for

depreciation) of the '90s!

Instead of using guns and muscle

to rescue hapless has-beens like

Danny Bonaduce, they could

simply teach their rotating

guest stars how to get out of

tricky jams and foil diabolical

adversaries by reading really

fast, employing lethal memory

tricks, placing tiny classified

ads, and practicing



courtesy of St. Huck


St. Huck