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I came across a mentioning of a speed-reading method devised by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832) in the (delightful) German novel Risiko (DE, EN) by Steffen Kopetztky. Goethe has a similar status in Germany as Shakespeare does in English-speaking countries (and beyond). The relevant paragraph reads as follows:

Stichnote erklärte ihm die, wie er wußte, auf Goethe zurückgehende Technik des Schnelllesens, die ihm einer seiner Lehrer auf der Torpedoschule in Flensburg beigebracht hatte und bei der es darum ging, sich vom Lesen einzelner Wörter zu lösen und stattdessen die ganze Zeile zu erfassen. So wie man sich ja auch während der Volksschule vom mühselingen Zusammenbuchstabieren der Wörter befreit habe und diese mit einem Blick erfassen, so sei es auch für die Breitseite eines gesetzten Textes möglich, diese in einer Zusammenschau zu lesen, wie ein Bild, das man ebenfalls als Ganzes betrachten und begreifen könne, ohne zuvor jedes Detail genau bestimmt zu haben.

Approx. Translation: Stichnote explained to him how the speed reading technique, pioneered, as he knew, by Goethe, worked; He himself had been trained in it by one of his teachers at the [Navy's] torpedo school - it was about letting go of reading individual words, and instead perceive the whole line as one [...]

My question is this: Did Goethe ever suggest such a method for speed reading and if so, where can further details be found? A preliminary Internet search makes me think this is a literary invention by Kopetztky, but then Goethe lived long before the invention of the Internet.

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  • @StevenJeuris I wasn't certain whether it fits here (best) either, but why Skeptics SE? Before posting I had been searching for SE sites concentrating on "self improvement" or "self hacking" (normally not my cup of tea), but this had led nowhere.
    – Drux
    Oct 3, 2018 at 3:03
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    Skeptics.SE would be a good choice as you are questioning the accuracy of information held within an article/book you have referenced. In my view, this kind of question fits well in Skeptics.SE Oct 3, 2018 at 6:22
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    Interestingly enough, he did say this: "The good people know not what time and trouble it costs to learn to read. I have been employed for eighteen years on it and cannot say that I have reached the goal yet".
    – Laurel
    Oct 3, 2018 at 22:18
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    Oh, thank you. I totally misread this. So we have an 2015 novel with a character who learnt a speed-reading technique in the 1910's that the novelist attributes to Goethe. We do allow claims from fiction, but only if it is clear the author intended the reader to literally believe the claim in the real world, not just in the fictional universe. I can't judge this one.
    – Oddthinking
    Oct 4, 2018 at 12:19
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    Given the remarks about the ambiguity of the original text and the quality of Google translate, I have edited the original German text in.
    – user22865
    Oct 4, 2018 at 13:55

1 Answer 1

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[Aside: In the comments to the Q, the reception of Goethe in Germany is compared to that of Shakespeare in England - it might be comparable today (as it is mostly his literary works that are still revered), but during his lifetime, and a century thereafter, it was much different: Goethe was revered as a poet, novelist, scientist, philosopher and political figure. He was the man. Stayed the night? House will have a plaque to this day. Worked there for any length of time? Town will have multiple Goethe-themed societies, buildings and institutions. There is a (mostly ironic, to be fair) sign 'Goethe vomited here' on a building in Tübingen.]

Goethe was acknowledged as a prolific reader, though the volume he himself attested is not neccessarily speed reading:

Conversations, 1830, 11. Januar.

[...] Als ich von der bewundernswürdigen Menge seiner täglichen Lectüre sprach, versicherte er, im Durchschnitt wenigstens einen Octavband täglich zu lesen. So habe er kürzlich einen ganzen Band absurder Krummacher'scher Predigten durchlesen, [...]

Translation: [...] When i spoke of the impressive volume of his [Goethe] daily reading, he asserted to be averaging at least one octavo daily. As such, he had recently finished off a whole volume of absurd sermons of Krummacher's, [...]

While the oft-cited (ironically also by speed reading sites) quote of his (cited quote highlighted by me) has some (mostly omitted) context:

Er scherzte darauf über die Schwierigkeit des Lesens und den Dünkel vieler Leute, die ohne alle Vorstudien und vorbereitenden Kenntnisse sogleich jedes philosophische und wissenschaftliche Werk lesen möchten, als wenn es eben nichts weiter als ein Roman wäre. --- „Die guten Leutchen, fuhr er fort, wissen nicht, was es Einem für Zeit und Mühe gekostet, um lesen zu lernen. Ich habe achtzig Jahre dazu gebraucht, und kann noch jetzt nicht sagen, daß ich am Ziele wäre.

Translation: He was quipping about the difficulties of reading and the arrogance of people, who, without any preliminary studies or contextual knowledge, will want to read any philosophical or scientific work, as if it was nothing more than a novel. --- The good people, he continued, do not know what kind of time and effort one had to invest into learning to read. It cost me eighty years, and i am not presently ready to pronounce myself at the end of that process.

So neither his self-professed reading volume, nor his stated stance on what constitutes 'reading' indicate he was using a speed reading technique as a matter of habit.

This does not preclude that he may have privately experimented with it, or surreptitiously employed it on works he considered unimportant. - yet in the case of Goethe we can, for once, go the way of Absence of evidence is the evidence of absence - everything that man did or said beyond the confines of absolute privacy was obsessively recorded. Had he pioneered, or even subscribed to, a technique for speed reading, we would have records of it.

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  • "at least one octavo daily" — Doesn't that mean 16 pages? That doesn't seem like an especially large amount of reading, especially in an age without television, video games, etc. Jul 18, 2023 at 14:24
  • @RayButterworth it just means any multiple of 16 pages, there are some pretty hefty octavos, but mostly they were broken into several skinnier books. The specific reference is unclear, but Krummacher had various ~100page (if octavo probably 96) books, e.g. google.de/books/edition/… ; which is also not an impressive amount of reading, but quite robust for a then-80-years-old
    – bukwyrm
    Jul 18, 2023 at 14:49

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