Monday, May 12, 2014

Jet lag/speed read

Alas, I experienced an intense bout of wakefulness after those optimistic last posts - still at the computer rather than winding down, it's 1:30am here and I was really hoping to run in the morning before 9:30am departure for sightseeing. Probably that is not realistic....

But I saw a funny link I had to share....

Brendan Byrne at Rhizome on speed-reading caught my attention anyway - and then I came upon this paragraph:
"If only I'd known about RSVP while in college, I may have actually gotten through all 1,000 pages of Tom Jones," writes Jim Pagels in Slate. The initial impulse to question Pagels' purity of spirit should be quashed. No one can read Tom Jones the way Fielding's initial audience did in 1749 (unless someone were to construct an immersive VR world, complete with memory wipes, to enable full reading-experience). And, indeed, the first page or so of Tom Jones goes down easily enough on Spreeder, if only because it is primarily table-setting. Stick the first couple of paragraphs of The Manifesto of the Communist Party in there, and you'll get the gist, but you begin to see the delicate impact of the loss of subvocalization. The twin delicious names "Metternich and Guizot" cannot be chewed over, nor can the inadvisable nostalgia associated with the phrase "French Radicals and German police-spies" be indulged in, even briefly.
Obviously I had to click through that link - Jim Pagels was my Columbia student, that may well have been my Tom Jones assignment! Here is the underlying link.

I think I am not in agreement with the Byrne commentary - I have never endeavored for speed reading, but I can't remember not knowing how to read and I have always been able to read at a not preternaturally but certainly implausibly fast rate. I can only think of a few times when I actually had to pause after and digest - I remember a spell of daily reading in the Rare Books and Manuscripts room at the British Library when I would request the maximum number of books (fifteen, maybe, or was it only twelve?) per day and basically just go through them all (many were shorter eighteenth-century things like Jethro Tull's The New Horse-Houghing Husbandry, more pamphlet than book) so that I could get my full total of new ones the next day.

It's not quite skimming, it's definitely speed-reading in some sense, and assuming I'm not trying to read something densely philosophical, I can probably under real pressure get through about 2000 pages in 8 hours and have decent recall (this works best when you are reading purposefully, i.e. for research for a book or because you need to write a report on a dossier or similar - for real serious reading i.e. of narrative history or non-theoretical scholarship, 100pp/hr is more realistic, or perhaps more comfortable is the better way of putting it). That particular library session was almost the only time I remember when I didn't read a novel on public transportation on the way home - I was clearly still letting it sink in and sort itself out. It was an interesting feeling but doing it too often would probably take years off your life!

I read Bleak House as a teenager in not much more than one sitting, maybe eight or ten hours, and I reread War and Peace a few summers ago also just over a couple of days, in three or four longish sessions - an average crime novel c. 75K will probably take me less than two hours to read, and I do like really long novels that will give me better value for money! This is a gift, especially for work purposes, but it is also a curse in terms of the gaping maw always needing to have more things fed into it (I had a shock of recognition when I saw this scene at the end of Fargo - it is a little frightening, but I have never seen a better depiction of my relationship with books!).

One of the things I write about in the style book is the impact of duration on the experience of reading - I think War and Peace at 10 hours is a quite different animal than War and Peace at 50 hours....