February 12, 2015

Reading: Does Speed Matter?

I believe everybody possesses one of two mindsets when approaching reading.

Either you rush through it or you take your time.

Rushers tend to judge a book based on plot while the rest of us will likely remember it for other details like a beautiful style or character development.
(No judgment for Russian Literature- it can get pretty crazy.) 
I often find that many people are of the belief that reading is like some sort of running competition - a timed event that requires efficiency and quick results. They want the gist of the story. The action. The Sparknotes edition. Abridged. The Hollywood adaptation. This mindset frequently goes hand-in-hand with the "simple is better" approach to literature which is often infuriatingly obsessed with contemporary trends of reading stories and calling it literature. (Yes, there actually is a difference.) Other members of this mindset include those who use the excuse that they read too slowly and therefore must read more simplistic/condensed literature "to save time". Again, it comes back to the matter of time.

I find this perplexing. (As you might have guessed, I take the other approach.) I believe reading is meant to be like a stroll through the park- not a marathon. Nobody who enjoys the tranquility of luxuriously meandering by a stream would stop and ask themselves "Am I being efficient?" If you are running a marathon, that is an entirely separate issue but a walk through nature is meant to be enjoyed in a fundamentally different manner than a competition where steady speed is required.
There's nothing wrong with slowing down once in awhile to appreciate the 
beauty of  the universe or art or the written word. Try it. You'll probably like it.   
Unless you are reading at gunpoint, for class or your job, or somewhere that efficiency might actually matter, is there really any need to rush through a book?

I believe that when you rush through a book, you miss the poetry of the words. Perhaps it is the Catholic in me (and years of Lectio Divina) but though I can read quickly, I rarely ever do. For me, the purpose of casual reading is to allow the images, the characters, their emotions, and everything you are reading to soak into you like a crouton soaking up soup. (Yes, you're the crispy piece of bread, how spicy you are is up to you.) There is no point in rushing it.

I've heard people make the claim that they get just as much out of books when they read it quickly than they would if they had read it slower. I challenge this notion any and every day of the week. How do you know what information you have overlooked if you've, in fact, overlooked it?

Something that comes to mind is a recurring quarrel that I have with my siblings over the merits of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations". (I believe it has its flaws but I still love it. Apparently I'm the only one.)

In chapter 4 Pip and his family (and family friends) sit down to eat their Christmas meal together. Here, Dickens gives us a brilliant bit of character development that was lost on nearly every one of my friends and siblings who claimed to get "just as much" out of the book while zipping through it.

In this scene, Pip's sister (along with the hilarious character Mr. Pumblechook) are chastising the youth and complaining about whatever list of grievances these two negative souls have drawn. Joe is silent. He scarcely says a word. Instead, he begins ladling gravy onto Pip's plate. It is a beautiful and tender moment that, when read (at the pace of a conversation) reveals so much about every character in the room that to this day it is one of my favorite scenes in the novel. Truly, I find it inspiring as both a reader and writer.

There is something ineffably beautiful about using a substance as simple as
gravy in order to reveal to the readers emotions as complex as love, sympathy,
and gratitude. The ability to do all of them at once is why I do not hesitate to call
 Dickens a literary master despite the fact that he has some obvious pacing issues.  
My siblings breezed through it and, to this day, still insist that it is a pointless scene where Dickens was fluffing up his word count by taking the time to describe Joe's excessive distribution of gravy onto Pip's plate. This utterly dismays me. When you approach the scene from my perspective, it is a brilliant composition where half a dozen emotions are being expressed. The extroverts are shouting on one side of the room and the introverts (Joe and Pip) are doing what they do best- being quiet. But there is more to it than just them being quiet. They may as well be shouting too for their actions read louder than Pumblechook's words.

They create a sort of mutual alliance against the two greedier characters. Joe cares about Pip's emotional health though he is too reserved and perhaps too shy to stand up to his wife on the issue(s). Like the gravy on Pip's plate, Joe's generosity and affections for him are overflowing. And when his wife is harsh and critical, the character reacts in the same way as usual. He does not prevent the attack on his young nephew and ward but he offers him support- piling it onto him. And when Pip has taken all that he can, Joe still has plenty more to offer.

Alas, here I am, getting lost in my love for Dickens once more. Mea Culpa. Truly I could prattle on about this subject forever but I think I've made my point sufficiently.There are a ton of subtle things at play here which can (and will) be analysed for years and generations to come. But you have to read the text carefully and pensively enough to recognize even a few of these things.

Moving on from Dickens ...

If you're a slow reader anxious about trying to improve your pace, I would like to ask- why? I keep seeing articles everywhere on "How to Read Faster" and honestly (unless it's for testing) I can't imagine why this matters to people. In my opinion you should read literature at the same pace you read poetry or have a conversation (unless you're Californian... then you might need to slow down a bit). But when you rush through books there will inevitably be quite a bit that you are missing. You deny yourself these wonderful little revelations about the characters and the text because you do not allow your brain the time to, not only process the information, but to actually revel in it. And unfortunately, you are probably not even aware that you have missed out on this because ... well ... you missed it.

These are just my silly little musings on reading. You don't have to agree with me. I just wanted to let you know you can read at your own pace and you should never feel embarrassed about doing that. For me, the point of reading is to escape into the mind or world of another author. It's a lovely experience that does not demand anything more than my willful participation.

I read to escape. I read for inspiration. I read to fall in love. I read to experience life and loss and everything in between. And though I might take a week, or two, or even a month, when I finish a book I am confident that I have gotten more from it than I would have if I was worried about reading it quickly or "efficiently".

When I finish the book it has become a part of me- for better or worse. I take with me more than just the story. The characters have become my family, friends, and enemies. I know each of them as intimately as I know myself. I do not feel compelled to read certain books to keep up with the latest trends or because my friends or coworkers recommended something to me. (Though I will kindly take it into consideration when selecting a new book.) I read because I want to. I read when I want to. I read at any pace that I please and I encourage you to do the same.

So, if you're feeling pressure from others to push through something ... all those dreaded snipes of "you're still reading that?" ... ignore it. Rest assured, it is far better that you are reading (even if it is slowly) than if you were not at all. 

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