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.