Speed reading t-bones slow reading: Golf balls, metaphors pile up

Photo by Keila MacPherson
Photo by Keila MacPherson

“I guess I missed that,” said Tracy, an upper-year Trent student who had mentioned one of her English course novels, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I had read the novel a long time ago and asked her what she thought of the bizarre first chapter where Benjy and Luster hunt for golf balls and a lost quarter. Tracy (not her real name) may in fact have missed the whole chapter, which is too bad since it’s an extended stroke of genius—72 pages of multiple voices, time and space dislocations, interior monologue, and synaesthesia—representing a high point in American fiction, a calculated speed bump that draws the reader, disoriented and softened up, deep into Faulkner Country.

Tracy was probably reading too fast, forgivable for any student faced with a mountain of books, upcoming tests, part-time jobs, and the competition of her instructors and WiFi for her precious time. Urged to read for both depth and breadth in fields of breathtaking scope no longer protected by high school spoon-feeding, she may well erupt by asking,  “What are these books, anyway, and how fast should I be reading them?”  These are the irksome questions for which we pay full tuition.

The pressure to read faster increased dramatically through the mid-20th century when Evelyn Wood, a high school teacher and guidance counsellor, pioneered her Reading Dynamics to turn efficient page-turning to profit. First promoting her skills to students, but then selling mainly to business, with its growing mountain of paper, Wood’s origin-myth, hand-pacing technique, joined with  other standard tactics, have defined speed reading ever since. These tactics include expanding eye-span, reading for thoughts rather than individual words, eliminating subvocalization (at its worst, lip-moving), and back-skipping, plus pushing for speed in a sweeping pattern down the page.

All of these are routinely supplemented by memory and study tactics of depressing familiarity to students everywhere. A flexible reading rate seems to be the key, whether bearing down on a text, or refreshing short-term memory of material already mastered. More importantly, for those of us who struggled in early grades to transition from slow phonics reading to the facile consumption of whole language, speed-reading techniques, including their current on-line variations, can bring liberation.

But this freedom came, and comes, with a cost; namely, comprehension and retention. In a landmark, still-cited 1975 study, Ronald P. Carver concluded that speed reading is never more than skimming, with a drastic falling-off of reliable intake as the hand moves faster. Speed reading promoters like to rebut this with the scores of their prize-winning adepts, who rocket through the thin air of a stratosphere about which most of us can only dream. More recent researchers, however, are adding their own critiques and skepticism, pointing out the physiological limits to eye-span and the inevitability of some background subvocalization.

A deeper limitation of the speed-reading imperative shows up as it takes on the flavour of an ideology: utilitarian, reductionist, conquering, market-oriented, and of universal application. At this level, hubris quickly sets in, especially when speed reading tries to claim literature. Here is Tina Konstant, in her Work Smarter with Speed Reading (Teach Yourself  books, 2010):

“As you read a novel, look only for the pieces of text that carry the story. Skim over the description. Most novels carry the story in conversation between the characters. As you read you will become familiar with the layout and be able to identify where the descriptive text starts and ends. If you begin to really enjoy the novel and want to read everything, you can change your technique and slow down a bit to enjoy the scenery.”

Really? The surpassing vacuity of this advice, highlighted in a box on the page, makes it hard to know where to begin except to pack her off to Club Med with a bag of Thomas Hardy’s 19th century sunless beach novels, where, hanging out at the pool’s swim-up bar, she will be forced to learn that scenery is character.

But neither Evelyn Wood nor the mid-century critics who feared that TV would supplant reading, had reason to worry. Today, both on-screen and off, we all read fast all the time. The real problem is the starvation of the over-fed, a topic that has drawn some brilliant commentators: Sven Birkerts, who articulated alarm in his still-fresh The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994, updated 2006); Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, 2010); and, more recently, the Great Books professor David Mikics, with his 2013 Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.

Slowing down is, in fact, the only way to chain-saw our way out of the metal cone of the speed-reading wind tunnel. Slow Food, Slow Travel, Slow Friendship—all of these reclamation projects respond to the same deeply intuited dilemma, one that has gone critical with the digital revolution. Referring to Carr’s book (which she recommends to her students), Professor Lorrie Clark of Trent’s English Department reflected recently (over a slow lunch in her office), “I love the fact that it’s so literary, without being pretentious. He quotes so effortlessly from people like Emerson and Hawthorne and Wallace Stevens. It’s also not a diatribe against the Internet. He has a very balanced tone.”

Balance is not easy, given the brain-rewiring, undifferentiated everythingness of Internet culture, with its power to trance us into what Mikics calls a state of Continuous Partial Attention. Clark also agrees with Carr when he talks about the loss of our powers of higher conceptual reasoning, the ability to synthesize information, not just collect it. What is disappearing, worries Clark, is the ability to make interpretive arguments. “There’s no Eureka moment, when all the pieces fall into place, and you’re full of wonder at the intricacy of the design.”

The hypermedia world of Google has been described as an ecology of interruption technologies. It has become harder than ever to see what Clark calls the intricacy of the design—the forest—when we search the Web. “We don’t even see the trees,” says Carr. “We see twigs and leaves.”

Those Aha! moments when we begin to see the design can come out of answering the simplest questions—a skill infrequently learned or trusted because we’re programmed by essays and exams to project the apparent knowingness of authoritative assertions, like the one you’ve just read. “What on earth is going on here?” “Who is talking?” “Is he kidding?” “Is there a main verb somewhere in this poem?”  In Northrop Frye in Conversation, David Cayley gives some examples of the seemingly simple questions that Canada’s most celebrated literary critic used to pose to his students: “Are we looking up or down at the characters in a story?” “Is their power of action greater or less than our own?”

Where, then, is the Eureka moment, the intricacy of the design, in Chapter One of The Sound and the Fury? More to the point, what argument can be made to talk Tracy, or anyone else, into crawling through this long tunnel? Apart from the many literary-interpretive rewards, there’s a more direct payoff. Following Benjy’s associative mind, picking up pieces of the Compson family story along the way, can set off a cascade of readerly epiphanies, as we suddenly see this painstakingly transcribed mental density against the everyday, effortless flow of our own inner verbal soundtrack. This comes as an unforgettable shock to anyone who has never eavesdropped on the voices populating their own subjective reality. It can prime a reader to burrow into other stream-of-consciousness authors, including James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. But Internet study aids don’t go there. The path of least resistance ends too soon, and can never compete with the pleasures of voluntary discomfort.

Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire) is often quoted as saying, “You cannot read a book. You can only reread it.” If this is true of novels and other prose forms, it is exponentially truer of the best poetry, which one critic defines as “the most semantically-saturated form of rhetoric we know.” Reread it, but, for the real payoff, check into a motel.

These days, this kind of reading (Nietzsche coined the term “slow reading” in 1887) is a hard sell. Losing oneself in the active reverie of a complete primary text is increasingly a defiant act of will. The traditional venue for its promotion, the liberal arts program, is shrinking, while the discussion itself, including the historical perspective provided by the canon of great works, is being displaced onto the circuits of the Third Industrial Revolution, with its relentless accent on the now. Teachers of literature struggle to find ways to instil this lost intimate relationship to the classics. Some adopt the tactics of judo, turning the strength of the opponent back against them. A brilliant lecturer can use multimedia to promote the counter-technology of the book. But given the pressures of course-work, there is a prior anxiety—the worry that we will graduate with a deep and abiding aversion to reading anything interesting.

Enthusiastic teachers and literary critics such as David Mikics are not the only professionals dedicated to the magic of words on a page. Other specialists over the past 50 years have converged in an unprecedented way to deepen our understanding of the miracle of those very recent inventions—writing, reading, and printed books. Cultural historians (Alberto Manguel), ESL academics, a new wave of literacy pioneers (see ChildrenoftheCode.org), neuroscientists (Maryanne Wolf and Steven Pinker), and reader-response theorists all continue to peel back the subjective and objective layers of decoding and interpreting text.

But wait! There’s more!, as they say in the TV ads for phone-order, battery-operated ear-cleaners. For someone looking out over the Otonabee from Bata, and in the right kind of nerdy stupor, the act of reading emerges as a process metaphor for life itself, not just for the simple pleasures of verisimilitude offered by the realistic novel.

Reading is much richer than that. Grammar—subject, verb, object—pulls us forward. At the same time, seizing the meaning of any one eye-fixation requires constant cognitive backward glancing and future guessing as we disambiguate, make mistakes, and build conceptual schema. Like baby savants, we make sense of the “booming, buzzing confusion” of the text. That’s on the horizontal axis. On the vertical axis, as readers we constantly undulate, plumbing unconscious resources with automaticity, then rising through sentence-level comprehension, upward to higher-order reflection where the true hunger is fed. An image? This is an undulating sine wave, rolling forward with an elastic sense of time, while it stands still in the eternal present of the optical fixation. The experience of life is like that, at least our minute-to-minute subjective experience of it.

The parallels here with the vast eventfulness of life are strong: the constant interpreting of data, the need to guess human intentions, our dyslexic confusion, and the way we construct and maintain a sense of self through endless loops of inner story-telling. But this emergent metaphor of Life as Reading, of course, will never fly. It’s too bloodless, too complicated, too, well, wordy. It can never compete with the Top Ten. Life is a Game, a Trip, a Play, a Dance, Fast Food, or—more mondaymorningish—a broken ATM or an unserviced bus stop.

And who’s willing to give up the succinct semantic mashup of “Life Sucks!”?

Life sucks for the illiterate and disabled Benjy. In the last scene of Faulkner’s novel, he howls as Luster drives the horse and carriage around a Civil War monument too fast, and—an act of meanness—in the wrong direction for a creature of habit. The tenacious reader for whom this final image resonates in obscure and unexpected ways may decide to flip back to the golf balls and, to misquote T. S. Eliot, arrive where she failed to start, and know the place for the first time.

Tom can be reached at thurley@sympatico.ca