Bookshelves and desk lamps brought serenity to Howard Berg. Not much else could growing up in the Brooklyn projects.
“I found the safest place in the neighborhood was the library,” he said. “To this day, I don’t think anyone’s ever felt threatened by gangs in a library.”
Gangs of bookworms, however, might feel intimidated by Berg’s uncanny ability to peruse a book. The McKinney resident is the world’s fastest reader.
He is listed in the 1990 Guinness Book of World Records for reading more than 25,000 words a minute. The average person reads 200 words a minute.
Berg’s learning ability is also anything but average, and has been since his early days in New York.
“I made some good choices,” he said. “I read at a college level in the sixth grade because I basically hung out in the library. It was the only place to play. I was surrounded by a lot of high-level books so I was reading at a pretty high level early.”
By high level, he means analyzing the relativity theory at age 9. He means processing 3,000 words a minute by the time he got to college at the State University of New York, Binghamton.
Coincidentally, Berg gained an interest in college in the brain and how it works. He switched his major during his junior year from biology to psycho-biology, eager to learn the physiology of the nervous system and the brain’s role in learning.
Berg completed a four-year psychology program in one year, a feat not even the school dean said was possible. Reading, analyzing and test-acing his doubters down, Berg had a revelation.
“It hit me that they don’t teach you how to learn in school,” he said. “They tell you what to learn and why to learn. They don’t explain why you can remember the words to, ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ or why you’d even want to.
“But when you read something you actually want to know, the next day you don’t know who wrote the book and who was in it. So, I started learning about learning.”
Berg moved to McKinney 14 years ago. He first came to the area when he appeared on “Good Morning Texas” as part of a national tour focused on his rare mental abilities.
New York — his home — had not appreciated, or perhaps understood those abilities. Berg worked in the city for 10 years, set on spreading his knowledge to kids who suffered through a push-them-along education system, that is, to those kids who even stayed in the system.
One school had a 2 percent graduation rate. The rest of the students either flunked or dropped out of the system. Berg volunteered to teach what he knew to the students who did stay in school, but the principal wouldn’t have it.
“Kids in biology couldn’t do the homework because they didn’t know how to find the answers, so I was teaching them how using their bio book in their bio class,” he said. “The principal said they weren’t paying me to do that and wrote down that I wasn’t doing my job because I was teaching kids how to do their homework and how to learn.”
Berg said he couldn’t help those unwilling to be helped.
“So I quit my job as a teacher to become an educator,” he said. “I wasn’t going to spend my life making kids dumber.”
Berg has stayed true to his promise since the 1980s, when he began educating anyone who would listen. School and business success depended on their listening, he said.
“There’s more printed in one week in the New York Times than a person in the 18th century learned their whole life,” he said. “When you’re trying to do well in school, you need to read faster than two hundred words a minute.”
Berg had taken graduate courses in how to teach reading, and more importantly, he figured out what he did to reach insane speed reading milestones.
“I observed myself reading,” he said. “I took a part of my mind that wasn’t reading, and I observed myself, asking what I was doing now that’s different than what someone else would be doing while reading this.”
Some might find that a daunting task, but Berg came to a fairly simple, yet complex conclusion. He compared reading to cruising down a North Texas highway. Drivers read the road in four directions — front, back, left and right — while eyeing the speedometer and gas gauge, switching the radio and playing Words With Friends on their iPhone. Berg said their brains should explode, but multitasking comes easier.
People read a book 200 words a minute in one direction and barely remember what they read an hour later. Berg realized the disconnect.
“In a car, we see everything,” he said. “In a book, it appears there’s a little person in the back of our heads looking at a book through our eyes, and this little person reads one word at a time aloud. So, we’re using our eyes to hear a book instead of to see a book.”
Seeing the words as a visual process, instead of an auditory one. So knowing what to look for during that process, particularly when studying a textbook, will increase one’s reading speed, Berg said.
“If you want to hit a target, you have to know what you’re aiming at,” Berg said. “Most people are clueless when they’re given a book. They need to stop reading and start analyzing.”
Teaching people how to analyze, and do it quickly, became Berg’s mission. He organized his methods into a system, a program that even the youngest kids could use.
One student who used the program finished a four-year degree at Thomas Edison in six months. Another graduated with a 4.0 grade point average in economics from the University of Texas-Arlington. He was only 16.
“He taught math as a graduate student when he was 18,” Berg said. “His biggest challenge was that he couldn’t date students who were younger.”
Berg’s 9-year-old grandchild took his program and can read 750 words a minute.
Of course, others took notice, many doubting his seemingly unreal speed-reading madness. Dr. Kuni Beasley, founder of the former NEW American School and Gateway Preparatory School, saw about an infomercial about Berg’s mega speed reading product. A speed reader himself, Beasley didn’t believe Berg’s claims.
“I thought that it was bogus,” Beasley said. “A parent brought me his program, and it was very simplistic so I thought it couldn’t be real. But it worked.”
Beasley began using Berg’s program at his school, the first to ever use it. Berg found out and was ecstatic. They started the NEW College Preparatory School in 2003.
The school has 15 campuses, including one in Frisco and seven in Houston. All teaching faculty is on the internet, so homeschooled students can use Beasley’s and Berg’s material, too.
Beasley, who is in charge of the school, has seen significant improvements in his students’ reading and learning through Berg’s program.
“If you take his course and apply his principles and practices, you will learn how to read faster,” Beasley said. “It’s simple and it’s easy, but it works.”
Others outside of education heard of Berg’s brilliance. He appeared in a 2009 commercial for Sony’s E-Reader on a celebrity panel of experts alongside singer Justin Timberlake, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and humorist and author Amy Sedaris.
He was a guest on Fox News’ “Your World with Neil Cavuto,” reading the three U.S. health care bills — a total of 6,100 pages — in less than four hours, then explaining what they would do.
“I’m probably the only person in America who has read the bills cover to cover,” Berg said, “and knows what’s in them and how they work.”
Berg, however, said he doesn’t do it for national recognition and world records. He teaches people because America needs it, because people are taught to fail.
“There are 15 million unemployed people trying to find jobs,” he said. “People want jobs, and it’s a capitalist country, but what do we teach? Go to school and get a job instead of start a business.
“The average college grad today will have 18 jobs before they’re thirty-eight. Do you want that, or do you want to learn how to start your own business? One way or another, you’re going to have to learn. It’s just a question of where you want to put your time and effort.”
Berg said he offers a way for those who want to do just that. He gives free reading lessons online at www.howardreadingtips.com, which he says can increase anyone’s reading speed by 10 to 15 percent in only 10 minutes.
Berg’s knowledge management and reading program is taught at www.NewCollegePrep.com, the website for the school he and Beasley founded several years ago. Berg said those enrolled will develop better memory, creativity and analyzing skills.
“I found what people are looking for — how to learn and understand,” he said. “It’s not just about reading. Reading isn’t learning. Reading by itself, fast or slow, doesn’t accomplish anything.”