download.jpgI have long been aware that one’s ability to read books at a steady pace and to get ‘er done is not dependent on the speed of your eye movement or the amount of text you can take in at one time but rather is is directly related to how well you can focus your concentration. Naturally your comprehension and memory are also enhances by staying focused.

I was a senior in High School when I began to experiment with various methods of improving my reading speed. They even had a reading lab where you could pace your reading by having a mechanical shutter close-off sentences at controllable speeds. Everyone cheated, of course, the winner being the person attesting to the fastest reading speed. If I recall, there was a rumor that someone had reached supersonic speeds … but that was just for a paragraph or two that the machine presented in a limited fashion.

I remember trying to calculate the speed at which the pages would have to be turned in order to make such astronomical speeds possible.

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Remember The Fugs?

This isn’t my favorite Ginsberg short poem but it is one of my favorite poem titles of all time.

Consulting I Ching Smoking Pot Listening to the Fugs Sing Blake

That which pushes upward
          does not come back
He led me in his garden
            tinkle of 20 year phonograph
        Death is icumen in
          and mocks my loss of liberty
One much see the Great Man
        Fear not it brings blessing
               No Harm
            from the invisible world
        Realms beyond
in the deserted city
            which lies below consciousness
                            June 1966


Rereading Reconsidered

Is rereading a memory exercise or a refinement of discovery?

ReadingNow that I have left academia far behind me, I seldom reread a novel. Often it is because I regret having wasted too much time on it already. There are a couple of authors I reread with some regularity: James Joyce and Alain Robbe-Grillet come to mind. But for the most part I would imagine that I reread more books because I have forgotten that I read them before than I reread them on purpose.

Let’s face it: there are too many books waiting to be read to spend time rereading a familiar text.

It’s interesting to contemplate that a reader who rereads favorite books is so often also a reader who cannot abide by “spoilers.” But why would you want to reread a book?

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The stuff that dreams are made of

Quotable novels are all alike; every unquotable novel is unquotable in its own way.

I imagine other than first lines, most novels are fundamentally unquotable from memory. This isn’t Fahrenheit 451 where we all get to memorize a great novel for posterity. I have spent forty or fifty years underlining important or moving passages in novels and later quoting them in theme papers and essays, but I’ll be damned if I actually memorized them. If I had to choose, though, I would say I can recite Finnegans Wake more than any other novel, and that includes Ulysses, Anna Karenina, and Catch-22. However, The Maltese Falcon is actually the book I can recite the most but I don’t feel it’s fair to use it since I probably memorized most of the lines from the film (the book and the film are almost identical).

The real problem with this question is that vague word “book” which I have interpreted as “novel.” Here we should allow it to refer to plays and poems.

In Graduate School I did an intensive study on Macbeth. It wasn’t long before I realized I could recite the entire play, almost without error. I remember going to parties and after the dog finished doing tricks, I would dramatize Macbeth playing all the parts (I was an especially good three weird sisters) just as long as the beers kept coming. Smaller parts from other Shakespeare plays were also commonly embedded in my memory (loved Richard III) as were several other playwrights. Since my concentration in Grad School was William Wycherley, I could recite a pretty good Gentleman Dancing Master. But the real field for memorization and recitation was poetry and I had plenty of poetry from Chaucer to Roethke. I did my senior project as an undergraduate on Ted Roethke and you don’t have to read and study a poem too long before it curls up in your memory. I found this technique of literally memorizing the poems invaluable when studying a poet and especially when taking one of the few examinations they forced on us (we mostly wrote papers).

From High School and most of the way through College and Grad School, I was unabashedly under the spell of John Keats. Whether through study or just repetition I could recite many poems by Keats and could even stumble through some of the longer works. Even today when I pull down a volume of Keats’ poetry I am blown away by the poems: rhymes are easy and evocative, poems are lush and memorable. It isn’t clear to me why I dropped a focus on the Romantic poets but one suggestion by my advisor might have had something to do with it. He asked me one question and suggested it for the thesis of my advanced degree:  Why is it that the Romantic poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Blake—could not write a decent play? I might have thought about this one and realized I would have to read and study some really awful plays and soon after change my concentration to Restoration Drama.