Thursday, May 6, 2010

"Reality" Check Time.... : HOW are you reading ?

About a month ago, I was killing some time on the Internet, on (no, that's not an ad for amazon...) and looked up a book that I still have downstairs, a book that I hauled over to the Old World on purpose many years ago, to see what people are saying about it NOW.
The book ? Adler and ?'s "How to Read a Book", which dates from the 1940's.
I am NOT going to waste your time and mine by reviewing this book here, you can check out amazon for the reviews if you like.
In the course of trawling the reviews, I came upon a "help" message floating in interstellar computer space, a young man asking for suggestions for how to read ever faster, and dig out all that content in two seconds flat, in between the rings on his cell phone.
And I answered him, and it's my answer that I want to share with you here (among other musings....)

Um... what GIVES with this constant obsession to race through books (and life...) ?
WHY do we feel we need to run everywhere ?
Haven't all of us figured out by now that when you're in the train, with your nose pressed to the glass, and it's going FAST, EVERYTHING OUTSIDE rushes past in an enormous BLUR ?
It's one thing TO HAVE YOUR EMPLOYER shouting at you all the time to pick up the pace.
BUT... to come home, and then shout at yourself to pick up the pace in all of your, uh, extracurricular activities, why be your own EXECUTIONER, chez vous, moreover ? (Actually, I didn't go into as much detail with HIM as I am with you.) Why willingly participate in your own alienation ?
For me, speed reading is an enormous joke, and as biblical as the Adler and ? book remains as a reference, I am not reading at the four levels that it preaches any more either...
Here is my breakdown of the different levels you CAN read at (this means comprehension, obviously) :
1) you are able to repeat what the author says, in his words.
2) you are able to repeat what the author says, in YOUR words.
3) you are able to pick out points in which you agree and disagree with the author, and justify your arguments.
4) you are able to do all the above AND relate what you have read to several other books, and historical points of view.
5)... you are able to do ALL the above, and you can tie what you have read into the experience of your daily life, integrating it with your past experience too, and SEEING where the book's ideas play out around you in your world.

Now, obviously you are not always going to take the time to do that.
Because you have figured out by the list above that there is NO WAY IN HELL that you are going to go through all those five levels by speed reading.
And you SHOULD have concluded by now that speed reading is ONLY going to give you an extremely superficial view of any book.

Which brings me to the next point. How long have books been available to the general public ?
Let me see... They started coming around at about the time of the Reformation. So that, in our culture alone, reams, and reams of paper have been printed with lots of interesting thoughts on them.
No way in your and my limited, finite life are we going to find the time to wade through everything that's been printed. We're going to have to... gracefully renounce that hubristic project.
Which means... that you gotta learn how to pick and choose what's worth reading all through those five stages of reading, and that's not necessarily an easy task.
But... you CAN learn to do a LOT of thinking, and learn a lot by only reading a handful of really good books WELL.

Now... this is exactly what our culture has decided to... NOT DO, these days.
And I assure you, it is bringing us down, and dumbing us down considerably.
That's too bad. Because I think that we need all the neurons, and all the intelligence we can muster at this stage of the game.

The Internet sound byte game has encouraged us to read superficially, and continues to shorten our attention spans, and capacity for critical thought. And we are not even particularly.. ashamed at our woeful ignorance and lack of general culture these days, either. We USED to be ashamed. No longer...

For info, I am currently reading Jacques Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life", 900 or so pages.
I am crossing my fingers that I will manage to finish it, because.. I too feel the dumbing down pressure working on ME. Inexorably...
While I do not agree with Jacques everywhere, we are having a marvelous... conversation, as I scribble comments to him in the margin as I read.
I love talking to authors, even when they are not there to answer me... Some of my best friends STILL are people who died long before I took my first breath. That never stopped me from loving them, (almost) as much as my flesh and blood kin. (WHAT AM I SAYING ?? MORE in certain cases..)
And Jacques is a great read. A breathtakingly educated, 113 year old French expatriate living in the U.S. (the opposite of me, as a matter of fact, except that no, I'm not 113. Whew. Thank God.). A historian of ideas.
Check it out. His writing style is impeccable. As good as an excellent bottle of vintage Bordeaux wine. For connaisseurs and lovers of books. Enjoy.


Toby said...

Good points Debbie.

Accelerating lifestyles are both reflections and manifestations of humanity's technical abilities to produce and process stuff more and more quickly. Keeping up means speeding up, and if you don't keep up it's the trash heap for you. At least that's the fear. Or live far away and forgo all that glittering, fast-paced living, while staying alive somehow in relative isolation.

Slowing down in an atmosphere of constant speed and frenzy takes a deliberate effort and the will power to see it through. I have not watched TV for close to two years and take my time with the books I read, writing notes in notebooks, and writing about what I've learned later on. I'm a happier man for it, but am further ostracizing myself from colleagues, family and friends, as my view of society changes away from theirs. Lately I've been craving more inclusion, but once changed always changed, so re-inclusion or re-insertion is probably impossible.

That said, I've always been an outsider anyway, so periodic desires to 'fit in' are passing phases rather than a perpetual longing. The argument remains though; slowing down means stepping off the quick-moving treadmill and getting 'left behind.' Very few seem to want to take a risk with that. We are a very social animal after all!

Anyhow, that's enough waffle from me!

Debra said...

Toby, you would be amazed to see how many people are dropping out, as I call it...
Like Joe Bageant who is FINALLY discovering the lost spiritual dimension to his existence.
Yeah, you are... marching to the step of a different drummer. You're not alone. Don't worry.
Just need to find the people who hear.. YOUR music, too.