Read Any Good Books Lately--Rapidly?


ROBERT FONTAINE is the author of books, a play, and many tight articles for the ATLANTIC and other magazines.

Rapid reading has become a trend, it seems, like vodka martinis and tight trousers. Children are beset with it in school, and adults who used to indulge in do-it-yourself swimming pools and breeding African violets for fun and profit are forming clubs to exchange data on galloping reading. It is just about the biggest thing since the Hula Hoop.

I happen to be old-fashioned, to the extent that I still read slowly and carefully for pleasure, profit, and joy. To me, reading is something I like to do with my complete self, utterly devoted and one hundred percent carried away. Any suggestion that I hurry it up to save time is as ridiculous as the notion that if I ate my dinner in ten minutes, I could eat seven big meals a day.

When I read a book, I am enamored of it. It lives with me. I hate to leave it, and l hasten to rejoin it. When I am done with it, I am overcome with a poignant heartache. For days I have lived in a new and exciting world of genes (or pancreases, or dominant and diminished sevenths, or X-ray photography of atoms, or libidos, or the search for the ruins of Solomon’s Temple). I dwell on the book when I am done.

I remember it with tenderness and regret. I am sorry I ever finished it. Then I go on to another book, and once more go through the same bittersweet process. Or, if the book proves to be dull or valueless, I toss it into the trash can at the end of the first chapter.

What is more, I take pleasure in reading a book again. I am not speaking of the great classics, but of informative and enthralling books of facts. I like to do this rereading, say, a year after the first reading. I like to believe that now I understand the book much better, and that the next time I read it I will find another flash of beauty or brilliance or truth that will add sparkle and warmth to my existence.

If a book cannot be enjoyed over and over again, as Oscar Wilde noted, there is no use reading it at all. So, precisely what good does it do the rapid reader to zoom through a book like a hot rod going down a turnpike, and then zoom through it a few more times for the pleasure of rezooming and kicking up a great williwaw of words? He has defeated his own purpose, which is to read as many different things as possible, in order to go on to some other book and miss all of the pleasure in that, too.

One of the methods suggested in rapid reading is to learn to read whole lines at a time or whole paragraphs at a time, pretty much as one would take in an entire steak at one gulp simply for the nourishment. I find this very trying. There are paragraphs worth thinking about for months. There are paragraphs that have changed my life.

Another trick is to read only the topic sentence of each paragraph. I cannot restrain my laughter at the thought of reading the topic sentence in each paragraph of Ulysses, or, for that matter, Roger Sessions’ books on modern harmony or Andre Malraux’s books on art. As for the more simple books, such as those on how to manage a wife or how to train a dog, practically all the salient points are featured on the jacket, and there is really no need to read the book at all. The same thing is apparent in popular-magazine articles, where a box is usually provided in the center of the page listing the important steps suggested by the author, numbered from one to twelve, and hinting that the author need not have written the piece at all. The box alone is equally worthless.

Then, too, there is the problem of retention. Boosters of speedy reading, like boosters of the Boston Red Sox and marriage, are inclined to exaggerate vastly. I have checked with a goodly number of swift perusers concerning books of which I have a complete knowledge. Not to my surprise, I have found them discovering primitive cave drawings of mammoths in Egyptian tombs, treating heartache with antibiotics, and permitting the characters of war and Peace to have a jolly time in the Pickwick Papers.

I need not go on about this system. It has the airy quality of nonsense. But I should like to ponder a moment over what prompts people to read twice as much, four times as quickly as normal.

Originally, I believe, the demand came from bureaucrats, who are so busy making their position secure they are unable to read the continuous stream of long memorandums ritualistically worshiped in their circles. This demand could be more simply filled by teaching people to write more intelligible and shorter memorandums, for one thing, so that the harried bureaucrat need not get involved in what seems to be an urgent request to save paper clips and which turns out pages later to be a long-winded piece of trumpery. The demand could also be filled by a night-school refresher course for bureaucrats, in their native tongue, so that they might learn, for example, to say “paper clips” instead of “appliances for clasping and holding fast written documents.”

Snob appeal, though, I believe, has made rapid reading move the people. After tail fins and backyard pools, we have come to reading. The assistant vice president of the largest umbrella factory in New England cannot wait to get on the golf course with his friend, the cashier of the third largest bank in Pittsfield, to tell him he has read seven books since last night: two histories of the French Revolution, three novels by William Faulkner, and two volumes on economics. The matron who once drove about in a limousine or dived into her heated pool now rushes to tell her bridge partners she read all of Proust yesterday afternoon. Our assistant vice president, I feel certain, is explaining what a great job Faulkner did on A Tale of Two Cities, and our matron has Swann carrying on in Dublin.

There is always hope rapid readers will turn en masse to the twist and let literature get out of its spin.