Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Do You Feel the Need....For Speed?

Last May, as I was turning 50, I concocted a list of things I'm "over" at this point in life.  In expressing my displeasure with drive-up windows, I referred to what I call the "cult of speed" that has overtaken culture.  All things that allow people to do more, do it faster, and with more mobility are deemed "good" by society.  It is a trend in which I choose not to participate.  I don't have a smartphone, I rarely multi-task (unless you count blogging while at work) and I try to take time to give store clerks, bank tellers and others I meet through the day a smile and friendly greeting.  In Oprah-speak, I try to be "fully present". 

Now the trend has moved to books.  According to this article in the Wall-Street Journal, skimming is the new reading. 
 "Reading slowly has been pathologized in the U.S. in the past half-century, while reading speedily has been glorified."  
The author is not referring to academic reading, but strictly to reading fiction for pleasure.  Bertrand Russell, Welsh philosopher and mathmatician (don't worry, I've never heard of him before either) is quoted as saying: 
"There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it." 
Both good motives.  There's nothing wrong with being proud of how much you read, but the cult of speed encourages readers - consciously or sub-consciously - to focus on the book/page/word count, rather than the story.  There is often more talk in the book world about quantity than quality.

I'm not saying I never skim.  There are a few instances when I will read to get the "gist" of a novel.  I have a tendency, especially in a high-tension plot, to start to skim over details because I can't wait to find out what happens next.  In that situation, I try to consciously slow down and be sure I'm not missing things.  I will skim intentionally when a book just isn't very good.  I may skim through the next few chapters, or even the rest of the book, to see if it improves before putting it down.  But, the best books are those where every word was chosen deliberately by the author and the reader gets wrapped up in the story like a comfy blanket.  Those books deserve to be read slowly and completely.
In "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read," Pierre Bayard, a professor of literature, makes a case for skimming as a way to maintain "a reasonable distance" from a book. "Skimming books without actually reading them does not in any way prevent you from commenting on them," Mr. Bayard wrote. "It's even possible that this is the most efficient way to absorb books, respecting their inherent depth and richness without getting lost in the details."

But, Mr. Bayard, good books should not be kept at a distance, and the best books are those where you get totally lost in the details.  Skimming masses of books to impress people at cocktail parties isn't reading.
To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him and travel in his company. 
 - Andre Gide - winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1947


  1. Good books should be clasp to your chest, should be cried over, should be yelled at, should be carried around, opened, closed, opened, closed....

    When I find myself skimming, I have to stop my self and go back. I don't want to miss a word. There are a few books I abandon, but I don't like to skim. Personal choice. I am for the quality of the read also.

    Yes, there are books I have chosen to read because they were trendy, but honestly, I didn't find many of them worth the effort.

    I do set myself a target of 100 books a year, but thats mostly because I have so many sitting here that I need to live to a very ripe old age to read them all, not because I want to brag about how many I read.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  2. This is interesting; I tend to do both skim and take my time and enjoy the words on the page, depending on what I'm reading. Some stories you can just kind of skim and still get the gist of the story (take a Danielle Steele book for instance), while others you want to savor the words on the page. But I read to read, not to boast about what I read or get in a certain quota by the end of the year, etc. Very interesting indeed!


  3. I'm totally with you!!! Maybe it's because I enjoy a good old "whodunnit" the most but I'm always afraid I'll miss a vital clue if I skim. Not to say that when it gets to the most exciting parts I find myself skimming - trying to see what happens next - but I typically catch myself and go back to the point where 'my feet left the ground' and read it more s l o w l y. If it's so boring that I cannot keep a train of thought and are reading every third word - I just put it down.

  4. I can't imagine doing that. I don't even like the books you download. I want to read nice and slow with the actual book in my hand.