This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, November 13, 1991

November 13, 1991 - On reading slowly

Most people don't read very fast. They "subvocalize" -- that is, they say each written word in their minds, just as if they were reading aloud. Often, their tongues actually form the sounds. (Check yourself as you read this column. Odds are, your tongue and your lips are making barely perceptible motions.) Most people read about as quickly as they speak.

I'm not really sure where the idea came from, but in fifth grade, I decided that I wanted to learn how to read faster. So I went to the Waukegan Public Library and checked out a couple of books on the subject.

According to those books, the object was to break the pattern of subvocalization. There were lots of tricks: place a ruler under a line of text, then start pulling it down the page, struggling to go faster and faster. Set your finger at the top left edge of the page, run it right along the first line of text, then left along the second line, then right along the third, alternating directions with each line. Watch your finger, not the words. Then set your finger at the exact middle of the page, and run it straight down. See how much you pick up. Always, the point was to go faster and faster.

I remember the first book I tried all this stuff on. It was a social science textbook. It was a good choice, because like many textbooks, it had two columns of text per page. Each column had fewer words on a line than the lines on an ordinary typeset page. Short lines -- like those you find in newspapers, incidentally -- are conducive to scanning.

Nonetheless, it was hard going. I got caught up in the exercises, but then would find that I'd gotten to the end of a page with scarcely a clue as to what I'd seen. It was frustrating -- sometimes I would have to go back and re-read everything at the usual speed. But that had begun to bother me, because I had glimpsed, barely, how fast I MIGHT be reading. So I'd try again.

After a couple of months of this, I began to discover how surprisingly flexible and quick the brain is, and what an incredible amount of information we can take in from our peripheral vision alone. Gradually, over time, I did break the pattern of subvocalization, splitting what I saw from how long it took me to say it.

There are lots of advantages to reading quickly. I soon learned that I could read whole textbooks in a week or so, then just skim the chapters again on the way to school. (Sometime I ought to do a column about how to read while walking through busy intersections, something else I got fairly good at.) But this kind of thing -- whether it be reading quickly, or reading and walking at the same time -- doesn't really take a whole lot of brain power. It's a skill, easily learned. It just takes practice.

I practiced a lot. So by the time I was a high school senior, I was churning through an average of 14 books a week, mostly science fiction, but with a fair sprinkling of classics, philosophy, and non-fiction, too.

More recently, I've found that reading fast is a good way to get up to speed in a new job. Or to immerse yourself in a subject: About 15 years ago, I read the Bible in three weeks, mostly on Tucson buses. And when I first dabbled with computers and modems, it was nice to discover that I could easily keep up with a 1200-characters-per-second connection.

But there's a downside to all this.

To really savor something, to really retain the flavor of a book, you don't WANT to read fast. In the past couple of years, I have found myself struggling -- particularly when I'm reading fiction -- to gear down, to go back to sounding each syllable in my mind. Strangely, the more tired I am, the faster I read.

The most satisfying reading, I've discovered, is reading aloud. Try this sometime. Check out, for instance, a book called "Sarah, Plain and Tall," by Patricia MacLachlan. Read it aloud to your spouse as he or she prepares dinner or fixes the car. The experience is utterly compelling. If you don't believe me, stop part way through, and observe your spouse's reaction.

Again, there is a lot to be said for learning to read quickly. But in this age of the sound bite, the video, even the book-on-tape, it just might be that the best entertainment to be found is listening to someone you love read from a book you're just about to love.

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