Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked

Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked

by Marcia Biederman


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The best-known educator of the twentieth century was a scammer in cashmere. “The most famous reading teacher in the world,” as television hosts introduced her, Evelyn Wood had little classroom experience, no degrees in reading instruction, and a background that included work at the Mormon mission in Germany at the time when the church was cooperating with the Third Reich. Nevertheless, a nation spooked by Sputnik and panicked by paperwork eagerly embraced her promises of a speed-reading revolution. Journalists, lawmakers and two US presidents lent credibility to Wood’s claims of turbocharging reading speeds through a method once compared to the miracle at Lourdes. Time magazine reported Woods grads could polish off Dr. Zhivago in one hour; a senator swore that Wood's method had boosted his reading speed to more than ten thousand words per minute.

But science showed that her method taught only skimming, with disastrous effects on comprehension—a fact Wood was aware of from early in her career. Fudging test results, and squelching critics, she founded a company that enrolled half a million. The course’s popularity endured even as evidence of its shortcomings continued to accumulate. Today, as apps and online courses attempt to spark a speed-reading revival, this engaging look at Wood’s rise from mission worker to marketer exposes the pitfalls of embracing a con artist's worthless solution to imaginary problems. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641601627
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/03/2019
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 286,116
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Marcia Biederman is a writer who has appeared in the New York Times, Crain's New York Business, New York Magazine, the New York Observer, and Newsday. She is also the author of Popovers and Candlelight: Patricia Murphy and the Rise and Fall of a Restaurant Empire She lives in New York. 

Read an Excerpt


Charm School

On a spring day in 1923, the Statue of Liberty turned her back on the United States. Young Evelyn Nielsen was set to fix that. Arguing that this country was foremost among all nations, the fourteen-year-old would convince Liberty to embrace America again.

Evelyn was playing an American Ideal in a Central Junior High School pageant. The real Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor was a long way from Ogden, Utah, a city of thirty thousand, where Mormonism was a major cultural force. Still, many in the audience had seen the statue on their way to an overseas mission or, as in the case of Evelyn's father, while immigrating from Scandinavia under the auspices of the Mormon church.

For all their restrictive doctrines, Mormons weren't hicks. Mormons studied languages, traveled, got around. They didn't smoke or drink, but they danced, sang, played basketball, organized socials and Boy Scout troops, and went to the theater. They sent their kids to public schools that released them a few hours a week for religious instruction, and they supported theatricals like this one. As Evelyn mounted the stage of the baroque Alhambra movie palace, which seated two thousand, her devout parents were probably clapping and prompting her younger brother to do the same.

Evelyn's role was a minor one, billed on the program below History and Congress. That would change. The adult Evelyn would star in a real-life episode of history with Congress playing the supporting role.

For now, the stagestruck adolescent was content with middle-class life in Ogden, where her father supervised production at a knitting mill and her mother taught etiquette at Sunday School. Here, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints happily, if sometimes incongruously, coexisted with American pop culture. On the Alhambra's schedule, the Ogden Tabernacle Choir rotated with silent films, vaudeville acts, and boxing matches. After watching Rudolph Valentino flicker across the movie screen in provocative Egyptian clothing, Evelyn dubbed a handsome church elder "our sheik." Even more thrilling than Valentino, however, was her own turn on the stage in this elaborate school pageant, in which dramatic poses were occasionally interrupted by dance, music, and dialogue.

Though Evelyn seldom landed leading roles, she'd been an enthusiastic supporting player since elementary school. Pageantry relied on anatomy, and this all-female show was a production of the girls' physical education department. Barely five feet and destined not to grow much taller, Evelyn was insufficiently statuesque to play the statue. At least she'd been better cast than the girls representing all forty-eight states. In historical order, each asked to join the union — a deadly bore until Kentucky's 1792 admission cued the chorus to belt out a Derby-themed number.

There'd be a long wait before the girl playing Utah stepped forward, as those in the theater knew. Utah's statehood was still somewhat of a novelty, in effect for little more than a quarter-century. Evelyn's mother, Rosina Stirland Nielsen, called Rose, had been born to a pioneer family in the theocratic Utah Territory. Evelyn's father, Elias Nielsen, had come to the territory from Denmark in 1887, just before the US Congress disbanded the church's ambitious immigration program. Of course, the juvenile pageant made no mention of that attack on the growth of the Latter-Day Saints Church, nor of the concessions forced on church leaders to win statehood. Those notably included the renunciation of polygamy, possibly practiced by some grandparents watching the school play.

As mandated by the LDS Church hierarchy, the Mormon parents in the crowd had lived through an era of Americanization, seeking respectability and forging civic bonds with gentiles, as they called non-Mormons. Born on January 8, 1909, thirteen years almost to the day after Utah's statehood, Evelyn Rosina Nielsen was expected to go even further. Although male-controlled, her church encouraged higher education for both genders. In an area of the country still emerging from its frontier past, another church-approved pursuit was so-called cultural refinement.

Undoubtedly encouraged by her etiquette-instructing mother, Evelyn seized opportunities for such refinement. Two weeks after the pageant, she appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream as one of Titania's servant fairies. She was playing a smaller house this time, the Central Junior High auditorium. For Evelyn, who thought of herself as literary and adored Shakespeare, this was a treasured opportunity to speak five of the Bard's lines. The set, too, must have met her romantic expectations. It was decorated with wildflowers and sagebrush plucked from the hillsides of Ogden. The city itself could have served as a stage set. The rugged peaks of the Wasatch Mountain Range towered above its brick commercial buildings, railroad yards, and residential avenues, providing a picture-perfect backdrop for nearly every urban view.

Between the whirl of school productions, Evelyn rehearsed for spring festivals and pageants mounted by the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association of her church ward. The MIA, which included a male counterpart, published a magazine called the Improvement Era. The Mormon passion for self-improvement, admired by other Americans, would later lead Evelyn to identify a need she could fill with a product. In her youth, it kept her buzzing, as in the beehive so admired by Mormons that it became the Utah state emblem.

After graduation from junior high, Evelyn entered Ogden High School. She was never absent or tardy during her first semester, but that didn't necessarily mean she enjoyed the experience. The city's sole high school was bursting at the seams, awaiting the construction of a new building to accommodate a growing juvenile population. Evelyn had only one sibling, her brother Ariel, but other Mormon families tended to be large, and prosperous Ogden was attracting many newcomers. Manufacturing and banking had overtaken agriculture in importance to the city. Situated just twenty-five miles from the place where the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 with a golden spike, the northern Utah city still drew its lifeblood from the railroads. It occupied a key position along north-south and east-west freight lines. Railroading had also brought the town a measure of diversity. Legendary jazz musicians sometimes stopped by Ogden after a Salt Lake City gig, playing the Porters and Waiters Club, founded by Pullman Company employees on notorious Twenty-Fifth Street, where bootlegging and gambling flourished. The club was on Ogden's south side, an area populated by African Americans, who were restricted from living elsewhere. Whites increasingly spread toward the east. There was only one high school, however. Everyone went to OHS.

Evelyn's high school years weren't her most noteworthy. Her theatrical career seemed to have gone on hiatus. Overlooked for leading roles in junior high, she might have found even stiffer competition at OHS. However, the Standard-Examiner did take notice of her fourth-place ranking in an essay contest. The essay topic was not specified, but the prize money — one dollar — was. Evelyn was then in tenth grade, competing against older students who took the top awards. Soon after that, she left OHS. By the end of eleventh grade, she'd earned enough high school credits to be admitted the following fall to Weber College.

At Weber she reawakened, excelling in oratory and debate, editing the yearbook, and dating the student-body president, Donnell Stewart. A few months into her first year, she and Don reigned over the annual prom, which Evelyn had helped plan. Hair stylishly bobbed, she wore a calf-length, scoop-necked lace evening dress as she led a line of girls over the polished wood floors of Ogden's Berthana ballroom to a queue of tuxedoed boys, headed by her date. A live orchestra played amid live ferns, and the campus paper pronounced the event a great success.

Evelyn was particularly fond of Weber. It survives today as Weber State University, a four-year institution on a verdant campus in the town's southeast corner. In Evelyn's day, the school was a two-year college housed in a Greek revival building in downtown Ogden, owned and operated by the LDS Church. This was Evelyn's first time attending a school where academics and religion were intertwined. As a younger student, in addition to attending Sunday School, she'd been released from public school for just a few periods a week of religious instruction, first at one of the LDS Primary Association schools for younger children, then at the seminary adjacent to OHS. The practice of letting students out of school for religious instruction was not uncommon in early twentieth-century America. Churches and synagogues in other parts of the nation also provided classes, as well as transportation to their facilities. Since Evelyn's school days, the practice has withstood a constitutional challenge and must still be allowed, although mainstream religions rarely promote it nowadays.

At Weber, religion permeated even the extracurricular activities. It was not that students shuffled head down through the halls, quoting scripture and singing hymns; they'd more likely be cheering at basketball and softball games or attending socials. Nor was the student body exclusively Mormon. One of Evelyn's classmates, Wilma Rubenstein, had been confirmed at a Reform Jewish temple in Salt Lake City. Still, Weber made little attempt to keep church and state separate. Soon after arriving on campus, Evelyn entered an oratory contest. The task was to argue that the church was a divine and indispensable institution, sincere in all its aspects. Quite sincerely believing this, Evelyn won one of the top three spots in a round that eliminated twenty other students. Even at the epicenter of the Mormon Culture Region — a term coined by a geographer to describe Utah and several nearby states — Evelyn stood out for her faith. Asked for adjectives to describe her, Verla Nielsen (no relation, but someone who knew Evelyn well in adulthood) immediately supplied "religious."

The only female chosen to advance to the oratory finals, she had one week to craft an oration on "Why Study the Scriptures." Confident and always overprepared, Evelyn rose before the assembled student body to give a ten-minute speech. She knew the topic well. Her life was rooted in Ogden's Fifth Ward — some two hundred people overseen by a bishop, who, despite the lofty title, had responsibilities similar to those of a Catholic parish priest — and the Weber Stake — encompassing a dozen other wards, like a diocese. Nearly everyone she knew obeyed the scriptures, studying the Book of Mormon in eighth grade, the Old and New Testaments in ninth and tenth, church history and doctrine in eleventh. Any questions she had could be answered at home on Family Night, the weekly evening reserved for parent-child bonding, as prescribed by the church. On these nights, generally a Monday, parents played games or practiced hobbies alongside their offspring.

Rose Nielsen was well equipped to address her children's queries. In addition to cultural refinement, she taught spiritual living at Sunday School. But she would likely have deferred to her husband. Elias Nielsen had spent two suffering years as a missionary in the American West and Midwest, ridiculed and threatened by those who had no use for Mormons. Like many other men returning from missions, he'd been made a member of a local quorum of the seventy, a respected role in the church.

Judged this time by the audience, Evelyn's speech took second place. She was probably disappointed to miss the first prize, a book signed by Heber J. Grant, then president of the LDS Church, a position whose occupant was sometimes called the "Mormon Pope." Still, second place was a kind of victory. A freshman girl had stood before a crowd of students and swayed many to vote for her.

A month after her triumph, Evelyn was invited to judge a high school oratory contest, not at her less-than-beloved alma mater, OHS, but at a suburban school north of Ogden. At seventeen, Evelyn was the same age as many of the contestants and the only college student to serve as a judge. Her colleagues on the panel were county education officials, high school teachers, and a Weber professor.

It was an honor she never forgot. Later in life, but before she could comfortably afford it, she donated to the high school's oratory program, stipulating that the money be used as a prize. That was very much in the Mormon tradition. Evelyn's family observed Fasting Sundays, skipping two meals and donating the saved money to a relief fund for the less fortunate. But recipients were expected to prove themselves worthy of the gift. As an adult, Evelyn would have a young grandson sign a "residence contract" before staying at her home, agreeing, among other things, to clear away his own dishes. Similarly, Evelyn's support for high school oratory was for winners only.

Finding such success in public speaking, Evelyn added debating to her quiver. As a Weber sophomore, she formed half of a two-woman debate team pitted against Colorado State Teachers College. The motion proposed a constitutional amendment giving Congress power to pass uniform marriage and divorce laws. Ironically, the affirmative position was assigned to Weber, run by a church that had suffered harassment and persecution over the issue of polygamy. The secular Colorado college argued against the motion. Evelyn and her teammate scored especially high in the rebuttal phase, and the decision went to Weber.

If Evelyn's father had found an opportunity to sharpen his own rebuttals, handling the insults he suffered during his youthful mission may have been easier. Evelyn was close to both her parents but often worried about her father, a foreman at the knitting mill. He had married late — unusual for a devout Mormon. Evelyn's birth had made Elias a first-time father at age thirty-nine. Evelyn often thanked her parents for teaching her to be a "lady." Her mother, Rose, was well equipped for the task. She was one of many children born to Thomas Stirland, a successful produce broker in small-town Logan, Utah, where Evelyn's parents had met. Elias, on the other hand, was practically a blue-collar worker — a machinist who'd brought the first power equipment to Logan's Union Knitting Mills.

Elias had built a lovely cottage, the envy of his neighbors, to attract his young bride. Evelyn was born in the cottage. She was delivered at home by a midwife, as was her brother, Ariel, two years later. But soon after, Elias left the home he'd built for Ogden. He continued to work in knitwear, but his résumé grew spottier as he moved from one church-owned mill to another, filling a series of positions that weren't necessarily promotions.

Evelyn sometimes worried that her father, almost elderly in her eyes, seemed somewhat precariously employed. For now, however, her parents were prepared to send her to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where she could finish college and earn a bachelor's degree, while her brother entered a pre-med program. Mormons were supposed to save toward a college education for both sons and daughters. With the church as well as the mainstream culture discouraging women from careers, many daughters might never use their degrees. Still, Mormons believed that any knowledge gained on earth would be helpful in the afterlife.

Evelyn and her family bought into this wholeheartedly. Their pragmatism, thrift, and industriousness were matched by their spiritualism. Like other orthodox Mormons, Evelyn firmly believed that she and all other people had existed as God's spirit children before entering the earthly world through birth and acquiring human bodies. Imagining that she'd somehow been able to write, draw, hear, and even bake in the spirit world before inhabiting a body, Evelyn wrote this to her parents about her birth:

I think it was one cold January night that I came. Trust me to come at night. I just couldn't find time to get away before. There were some little songs that I had to write, and some pictures to draw and a nice cake to make for one of the ladies, and a little girl's story to hear before I could break away, and that['s] what made me late. Then you noticed, that I came only half prepared. I left all my old clothes there and came to crawl into nice warm wooly ones that you had made. ... You were all so nice to me. You may have corrected me and helped me see better, but I knew it was for the best.

Regardless of the accuracy of the theology, Evelyn's faith in church teachings is evident. Yet faith alone would not assure her a place in heaven. Mormons believe that one's works paved the path to celestial glory. With that in mind, Evelyn bade farewell to family and friends in Ogden and journeyed forty miles south to the "U" in Salt Lake City. Her motto, to be engraved one day on company letterhead, was, "Knowledge Through Reading."


Excerpted from "Scan Artist"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Marcia Biederman.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue ix

1 Charm School 1

2 Third-Reich interlude 17

3 Habits of Highly Effective Readers 35

4 We Have Liftoff 53

5 The Kid Farm 69

6 Bunk and Debunkers 87

7 Civil War 101

8 Consulting the Oracle 113

9 Times Are A-Changin' 129

10 Snake in the Grass 147

11 White Knight 161

12 Rehab 177

13 Carved in Stone 191

Epilogue 205

Acknowledgments 211

Notes 213

Selected Bibliography 237

Index 239

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