Sometime in the mid-seventies, my then-boyfriend John and I saw comedian Robert Klein perform at Carnegie Hall. I remember that our seats in this fabled auditorium were in my favored spot – middle, middle – but I don’t remember much about Klein’s performance. Except for this:
At one point he pretended to be a young surgeon who’d just breezed through med school, thanks to the Evelyn Wood speed-reading course he’d taken. Imaginary scalpel in hand, bending over his imaginary patient on the imaginary operating table, he hesitated, looked up at us in his audience and worried aloud:
“Now, was that the liver AND the spleen? Or [he paused], the liver OR the spleen?”
And here’s a related classic line from comedian Woody Allen: “I took a speed reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page, and I was able to read War and Peace in 20 minutes! It’s about Russia.”
These stories are both funny and sadly true, in my view. The sad fact is, as I see it, too many of us in this fast-paced world, besieged as we are by too much to read and always pressed for time, are reading too fast – skimming, really – and in the process missing the import of much of what we read.
Yesterday I read a fascinating article on this subject, titled “So Much to Read, So Little Time,” published by Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Vol. 17, No. 1), which begins with:
“The prospect of speed reading—reading at an increased speed without any loss of comprehension—has undeniable appeal. Speed reading has been an intriguing concept for decades, at least since Evelyn Wood introduced her Reading Dynamics training program in 1959. It has recently increased in popularity, with speed-reading apps and technologies being introduced for smartphones and digital devices….”
This scholarly article goes on to say, however:
“Our brief discussion of trade-offs between speed and comprehension suggests that a reader cannot ‘have his cake and eat it too,’ in the sense that comprehension must necessarily suffer if the reading process becomes more like skimming. Indeed, we will see there is little evidence for a unique behavior, such as speed reading, in which speed and comprehension are both high.”
Their conclusions: “Many people wish to read faster by finding a special form of reading in which they read more quickly with excellent comprehension, ideally without much effort or training. In this article, we have seen that there is no such magic bullet. There is a trade-off between speed and accuracy in reading, as there is in all forms of behavior.”
As my old friend Ron always says about life: “It’s all about trade-offs.”
But I can’t help but think that in this case, quickie, thoughtless, superficial reading – or not bothering to read at all — can be harmful to self or others. (“Oh, hell, let’s just go for the liver AND the spleen!”) Call me an old schoolmarm, since I am, in fact, a retired college English instructor, but from what I’ve observed on Facebook and seen on TV news, as well as elsewhere lately, too many people are not doing their reading homework. (Yet, like some of my former students, they expect a good grade, as if grades were free gifts).
They look at pictures, read blurbs or intros, then jump to often-wrong conclusions, as evidenced by their sometimes wildly off-base Facebook comments. Others, in their intellectual indolence, hang on to the inciteful words of a deranged demagogue who doesn’t read, to the potential detriment of all.
What to do, I wonder? Here’s a plan: Take a deep breath. Slow down. Hit the books. Read carefully. Think responsibly.
I’m reminded of the Slow Food movement that began after a man named Carlo Petrini and a group of activists held a demonstration on the intended site of a McDonald’s at the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1986. At that time, I was embarking on my own, new, culinary career in Manhattan; and I assumed that “Slow Food” was simply a celebration of traditional dishes cooked “low and slow,” what we in the business then referred to as “Mama food.”
How wrong – or limited in my thinking — I was. In the decades since then the movement has evolved to embrace a comprehensive approach to food that recognizes “the strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics and culture,” according to their website (www.slowfood.com). Today Slow Food represents a global movement involving thousands of projects and millions of people in over 160 countries.
At this moment I’m imagining a Slow Reading movement that would inspire people all over the world to read more widely, carefully and thoughtfully, in order to make stronger connections between planet, people, politics and cultures. It’s a lofty fantasy, I know. But surely possible — and well worth considering.
For those who have taken the time to read this this far, I’d like to go one step further in making my case: Slow reading, like slow lovemaking, is simply altogether better. Time well spent.