Sunday, November 30, 2014


A slow reader myself, I have always envied speedreaders. Come to think of it, are speedreaders and speedreading single words, or should they be two each? Note that a single word confers status; the dignity of enshrinement in the dictionary, institutionalizing what is a mere procedure. I am reasonably sure that speedreaders espouse the single word, readable a split second faster, and thus more of their speed.

But envy is a perverted form of admiration; I had to find a way of minimizing, perhaps even demonizing, speedreading. Especially so after I subscribed to a home course offered by a company, which, besides having paid for it, I found of no use whatever.

The chief method, I gathered, was to read down the center of a page, and absorbing, if at all, what’s near the margins by some sort of auxiliary vision. That, I decided, was like a tennis player going only after balls coming down the middle, and leaving shots into the corners to fend for themselves—the surest way of losing.

Yet wasn’t speedreading somehow useful? As I grew older, and my memory did not age gracefully, I had problems with reviewing longer books. By the time I reached their ends, I had difficulties remembering their beginnings. My opportunistic spouse suggested skimming such them. To me, that was like periodically nodding off while watching a play or movie—too great a loss.

Nevertheless, some envy persisted, although I defended my slow reading with an analogy from walking. How could fast walkers trough a landscape or cityscape fully enjoy the natural or architectural beauties? A goodly portion had to be wasted on them. Yes, but even so, speedreaders had the benefit of being able to tackle the great classics, however imperfectly. What, after all, is perfect in this vale of tears of ours? And the famous masterpieces tend to be long. Take Moby-Dick, Take War and Peace, take Proust. Each of those is a different case and needs to be examined separately.

Melville, except in one famous short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,”strikes me as a poor writer, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. The two or three times I tried reading his alleged masterpiece, I always gave up alienated after a few pages. It struck me as the sort of thing that might prove helpful to people having to carve up beached whales for commercial purposes. (Too bad that English lacks a single, terse word for this as French has: depecer is more precise, more specific for this activity, and has indeed served the great Jacques Prevert as basis for one of his wonderful poems.)

But what about Tolstoy? Even in translation, he knew how to write. Still, after a couple of attempts at War and Peace, I gave up well before the end of Peace, to say nothing of War. Too many characters, too many names, too many details. By way of contrast, Ivan Ilich managed to die in a fraction of narrative time.

Now how about In Search of Lost Time—or, since I read it in French, A la Recherche du temps perdu? Well, in the first place, I was assistant to Harry Levin in his celebrated Harvard Proust, Mann and Joyce course, and so had to read it. And in the second place, Proust spoke to me the way Tolstoy didn’t. Even his long sentences, let alone his paragraphs, generated an intense curiosity about their outcome—sort of like reading a detective novel (I imagine, because I don’t read any), where you are ineluctably propelled to attain the revelatory ending.

Still, when assigned it by the New York Times Book Review, I managed to read even one of Norman Mailer’s hugely hypertrophic novels—Harlot’s Ghost, 1310 pages—even if I had to read it on trains while traveling through Europe. It occurs to me that the trains must have been helpful: you couldn’t get up and do something else.

Probably, though, the best defense of slow reading (please note: always two words) is that one remembers much more that way. This may indeed hold true for younger people; in my case, and doubtless in that of other older folks, it no longer applies. (By the way, why are younger persons usually people, whereas older ones most often folks?) Rereading a text might be helpful; but who, having slowly and painstakingly read a lengthy text once, would have the disposition, energy, and patience to read it twice?

Here I take the opportunity to express my gratitude to the New York Times, which I have often slighted or censured. Truth is I spend considerable, perhaps even inordinate, time in the morning reading the daily Times, and even more on the Sunday edition. Granted, much of that stuff is of only passing interest, if that. But there is also enough there that is genuinely entertaining, and some indeed that is relevant and useful to know. It certainly enhances your cocktail-party conversation.

On the debit side, however, we also get content that is annoying, notably the drama and, to a somewhat lesser extent, film criticism. Especially irritating is the almost fanatically extensive and enthusiastic coverage of pop music; while dance and classical music, which require technical knowledge, are handled more cogently.  Well, there is no rose without thorns (actually there are some roses that don’t have them, but are too expensive for the ordinary man, if not so for his woman). And there is one corollary benefit from the Sunday Times: hefting it easily replaces dumbbells as exercise.

Finally, I feel more and more indebted to G. K. Chesterton, who observed what a fine  spectacle Times Square at night would be for anyone who could not read. And that, mind you, was then. Now, with the exponentially increased types and quantity of signage, even a speedreader could waste a couple of hours presuming to read them.

I wonder, though, whether the gaping, milling, and circulation-choking nocturnal throngs can qualifiy as readers of any kind. Judging by their behavior and overheard snippets of—dare one call it conversation?—they are merely mistaking littering for literacy and loitering for serious reconnoitering.


  1. But isn't Melville worth it for writing this great:

    "But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;- even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight. Floating on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us. One of these little infants, that from certain queer tokens seemed hardly a day old, might have measured some fourteen feet in length, and some six feet in girth. He was a little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarce yet recovered from that irksome position it had so lately occupied in the maternal reticule; where, tail to head, and all ready for the final spring, the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar’s bow. The delicate side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby’s ears newly arrived from foreign parts.

    "...Starbuck saw long coils of the umbilical cord of Madame Leviathan, by which the young cub seemed still tethered to its dam. Not seldom in the rapid vicissitudes of the chase, this natural line, with the maternal end loose, becomes entangled with the hempen one, so that the cub is thereby trapped."

  2. Here's Robertson Davies' famous lectures on reading and writing -- he memorably discusses speed reading in the lecture on reading:

  3. Mr. Simon, perhaps you could do a column on "uptalk," the phenomenon of people making declarative statements sound like questions. I was in the military for 20 years and never heard it used once; I've been at the U. of Maryland for two years and have heard it used scores of times, by both students and teachers.

    1. I should have written that I've heard uptalk used at the U. of MD by scores of people -- I've heard it used hundreds (if not thousands) of times....