Woody Allen? Rod Riggs? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The ability to read and comprehend text quickly is a valuable skill. Several decades ago courses were developed that attempted to teach “speed reading” or “quick reading” techniques. The well-known comedian Woody Allen created a joke about applying speed-reading strategies to Tolstoy’s massive tome “War and Peace”. Are you familiar with this joke? Did Allen really originate it?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence found by QI was printed in May 1967 in the “Ames Daily Tribune” of Ames, Iowa. A columnist named Rod Riggs presented the comical tale without attribution: Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Foolishness: The fellow took a speed reading course. “I learned to read straight down the middle of the page,” he reported. “I was able to go through ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.”
The next earliest citation known to QI appeared in “Reader’s Digest” in October 1967. This mass-circulation periodical has historically been an important nexus for the distribution of quotations and anecdotes. The joke was credited to Woody Allen, and an acknowledgement was given to a popular columnist based in California: 2
Condensed Version. Woody Allen says, “I took a course in speed reading, learning to read straight down the middle of the page, and I was able to go through War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.”
— Herb Caen in San Francisco Chronicle
QI believes that this humorous remark was crafted by Woody Allen who probably used it in one of his comedy routines in the 1960s. Caen was careful to credit Allen. Riggs may have heard someone repeat the joke, and he placed it in his column without ascription. A citation from 1972 stated that Allen told the joke on television. Details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In February 1968 the widely-syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons wrote about his visit to San Francisco during which he dined with fellow columnist Herb Caen and with Barnaby Conrad who was a best-selling author and nightclub owner. Lyons reported that Allen rehearsed a version of the joke with Conrad. Caen had already reported the joke a few months earlier, but it was conceivable that Caen first heard the quip via Conrad: 3
It was to Conrad that Woody Allen revealed his having taken a thorough quick-reading course: “For instance, Barnaby, I read ‘War and Peace’ in 42 minutes. What’s it about? I’ll tell you what it’s about. It’s about Russia.”
In July 1968 an anonymous instance of the jest was printed in a Rome, New York newspaper which acknowledged another periodical: 4
One fellow took a special course in speed reading and gave a testimonial as to its effectiveness.
“I learned to read straight down the middle of the page,” he said. “I was able to go through War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.” —Sunday School Times & Gospel Herald.
In June 1969 the popular columnist Earl Wilson shared a different quip about speed reading: 5
EARL’S PEARLS: Jim Woelm of Minneapolis writes that he took a speed-reading course: “And it worked—I notice that I become confused much faster now.”
In August 1972 a book reviewer writing in the pages of the “Boston Herald” recalled seeing Woody Allen tell the joke on television: 6
Holding a huge book in his bands, he confesses he has just read it in a few minutes. He has been wanting to read it for some time; had started it several times, but had never found the time to finish it. So he had signed on with a speed reading course and, after weeks of training, he had finally completed this book. He identifies it as “War and Peace.” Then, nodding his head, peering slantwise over his glasses, he tells the audience what he got out of it: “It’s about Russia.”
In conclusion, QI believes Woody Allen deserves credit for this jest. The precise wording employed by Allen is not known to QI. The citations above were indirect, but QI recommends the October 1967 version.
Image Notes: Picture of the book “War and Peace” via Wikimedia Commons. Author: Liannadavis; this image file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Book with open pages on black background from TKarts at Pixabay. Publicity photo of Woody Allen for the film “Take the Money and Run”. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.
(Special thanks to Jesse Mazer who is a volunteer editor at Wikiquote. Mazer found a match in the Google Books (GB) database indicating that the jest was present in an issue of “Reader’s Digest” from 1967. He shared this information on a Wikiquote Talk page. That GB match has now disappeared; however, the lead allowed QI to search through “Reader’s Digest” and precisely locate the important October 1967 citation.)
- 1967 May 23, Ames Daily Tribune, From My Point of View by Rod Riggs, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Ames, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1967 October, Reader’s Digest, Volume 91, Condensed Version (filler item), Quote Page 120, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1968 February 4, Sunday Advocate, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 8B, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1968 July 30, Rome Daily Sentinel, He Knows (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Rome, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1969 June 3, Richmond Times Dispatch, Show Time by Earl Wilson, Quote Page B19, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1972 August 28, Boston Herald (Boston Herald Traveler), Speed Reading: Why? by P. Albert Duhamel, Quote Page 15, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩