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G to the U to the C to the K

Ms. Gucky, if you're nasty

March 6th, 2014

In Praise of Sloth Reading. @ 06:21 pm

Reading has been a joy of mine since I could remember. My mother ordered the large box color coded reading pamphlets with comprehension questions at the end of each passage as a gift for me so that, by the time I went to kindergarten, I was three steps up from the highest level they had in the classroom (it happened to be the same system). I don't remember trying to speed read. I just read. And when I read to my grandma one night while visiting, she said, "You're skipping the articles. That's cheating." I wasn't trying to cheat.

I read the books and magazines my parents had. I went to the library regularly. I used the money from birthday cards for worn out books from the Goodwill or cheap bin outside of the used bookstore. I remember reading "Sidhartha" in grade school and "The Princess Bride" enough to spoil the ending (or at least what ROUS stood for) to my 3rd grade class when the teacher began reading it. My T.S. Elliot and e.e. Cummings were so worn that by the time we covered poetry in junior high, I was bored with the classics and bringing in Ferlinghetti and Greg Corso and making my very Catholic English teacher upset with "Christ Came Down From His Cross" not to be a troublemaker, but because it was something entirely new and exciting from the tomes of Dickenson and Longfellow that I had already read.

As a freshman in high school, you don't get to select your classes in the first semester, really. I wanted to take as many classes as possible to get to as many electives and AP classes as possible to get ahead as much as possible and not miss out. Every freshman was required to take a reading class. I looked forward to reading, but stepping into the classroom - with diagrammed sentences and black monitors with green text - it was clear it wouldn't be me lying back with British novels in a quiet corner for 50 minutes.

The teacher was a wiry black woman with oversized glasses, like a more tense version of the chief from "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" (who was also in THE WARRIORS, but hey). She sat us all down at computers and told us to follow the instructions to try out the program. I followed the instructions, read some passages, answered some questions and got a score. I tried to get her attention. I raised my hand, "I'm not sure what to do on this screen." She politely looked at me as if I were an idiot and then wandered over to me. She was clearly surprised at where I was and, me being me, I was terrified that I had done something wrong. "Just wait until everyone else is done."

Slowly, the rest of the class finished the program, scores popping up on their screens. Thankfully, I was on the edge, where no one else could see my score. She divided the class up into groups - not indicating that there was leveling, but it was clearly there, like kindergarten. They just didn't call it Lions, Tigers and Dinosaurs this time. She got to my group last. It was just me and a guy that I had never seen before, just sitting off on the edge. While the other groups got started on another program, the teacher got to us.

"So, for you, this class is optional. You can always improve your reading speed, and it would likely do you a lot of good to do so, but if you choose not to-"
"Can I take another class?"
"Um, I think it might be too late for that."
"Oh." I was crestfallen. I had been trying to map out my 8 limited semesters without missing Psych and Film as Literature and Screenprinting and Beginning Cartooning and Advanced Cartooning and... (my high school was ridiculously overfunded).

The guy opted to stay in the class. I took the slip of paper from the teacher, telling the counselor's office to put me in a study hall (which I later spent entirely in the computer lab). As I walked out, everyone stared at me. I was a big goober in junior high, but suddenly everyone looked at me as if I were a different kind of freak.

This was the same year I had honors English. I got a different kind of stare. All the typical honors kids looking at me, wondering why a goober like me was there - particularly since I clearly was a disaster at spelling even on the first day. This was kind of the rest of my high school experience - the weirdo in honors. Or the weirdo who refused honors because she wrote a scathing letter on why the academic tracking system locked in the unfairness of income inequality, which landed her in the hippy English class sophomore year with the damaged Vietnam vet teacher where everyone just watched APOCALYPSE NOW and Jay Printy ran a sports book out of an empty desk in the classroom.

But I read and read and read and read. When I finally got into "Cinema as Humanities" (in my junior or senior year), you got extra credit for reading the book the movies were based on. I read them all, resulting in enough points to have an A and a leftover C, including a weird analysis about the Russian cultural perspective missing from the point of view of the movie. And I read the book that the teacher had written about sci-fi and suggested some movies he didn't include in the book. (I was an arrogant shit.)

I read anything I could get my hands on, pouring words into my head.

And then, after the onslaught of college, the reading and reading and reading was required. Reading women's literature. Reading outcast literature. Reading the NIV study bible. Reading alternate translations of the bible. Reading philosophy treatise. Reading in Russian. The juggling three novels at once in addition to four academic essays (to read) and two papers (to write), I just didn't want to read any more. Reading (outside of all the other reading I was doing and all the Usenet I was consuming) just wasn't fun anymore.

When I went to grad school, I expected to have to keep reading. But as a design student, I was writing more than I was reading. I was drawing and watching and laying out type and writing more - but never really reading. And then my International Design teacher handed us his bibliography. Not for any paper, or the class - but these were the books that shaped his world view so if we wanted to, we could read them. I started with Joseph Campbell's Masks of God. And then Barthes' Mythologies. And then Cleopatra's Nose. And then, and then, and then. So many amazing books. Not fiction, but not cold, hard academic books either. Not the distance of the western philosophy. I flew through most of them. But then I got to a book that I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember. It wasn't just hard. It was DENSE. Every word meant four things. Every sentence played with structure. I had to go back and reread passages, make notes in the borders. What I took for granted, the fast plow through of any book, wasn't there any more. I wasn't slow, mind you. But I couldn't just throw it in my head and think about it later. What a FEELING!

And then, of course, I picked up "Finnegan's Wake." After all, no book could stop me. But there I was, two pages in, perplexed, even with notes and a study guide and rereading. It was stupid. How could anyone get anything out of this? And how on earth did Tom Robbins think the natives of wherever would be able to understand it to try to throw an Irish wake?! (I now, of course, have developed a slightly more keen sense of humor.) Being forced to see every single word felt good. The language was richer. The brain worked deeper. I had to fight against the words, to work for understanding. I got pleasure in it. I wasn't cheating. My brain hurt. It was awesome.

Now, I balance the easy with the challenging, the difficult with the junk food. I fly through garbage novels and then pour through academic studies. I try to find a balance to keep moving on a book without making books one day disposable objects.

So when someone posts an app to speed up their reading or there's a business speed reading test, I get it. I do. They want to increase their efficiency. They want their brain to work more quickly. They want to be more mentally agile or something.

But let's hope that somewhere in all the souped up, gazelle-like speed reading across the wild plains of faster, more, more, more that it's not crushing the pleasure, the interest, the exploration, the danger of plowing through something tremendously, ploddingly, challengingly dense.

tldr; reading slow is good, too.
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Date:March 7th, 2014 03:00 pm (UTC)
In lieu of saying this in the post where we were discussing Adderall... I snorted Ritalin a couple of times in college. One of those times I read The Dharma Bums in a single sitting. That was fun.

I enjoy literature, but if it's not whatever I perceive as "entertaining," (Austen, Dickens) my mind tends to wander. I do NOT enjoy nonfiction*, but I like having the facts uploaded to my brain. I can see a reading-speed-enhancing program helping with the latter. The former is what off-label use of stimulants** is for. :P (Not that I would. Anymore. But that was a good night.)

*Unless it's super lyrical like Annie Dillard, but then, if it's dense, I get the mind wandering thing.

**Used to be that I could do this with THC too - I remember long, languid nights of reading pages of Anna Karenina veeeeery sloooowly - but it doesn't have that effect anymore.

G to the U to the C to the K

Ms. Gucky, if you're nasty