It’s an Old Prejudice

tapesWhen my wife was alive and commuting daily at least 45 minutes to work, she loved recorded books, mostly mysteries and usually abridged. For a few years I joined her in the commute and it was obvious how the recorded books relieved the tedium of the drive and I had to agree with her, the abridged versions left out a lot of boring description and made the trip more pleasant. Due to the number and size of the abridged tapes, she was enjoying a typical novel in just two days. Recorded books were, as they say, better than mayonnaise.

I knew a few readers that used recorded books to cover the hours washing dishes, weeding the garden, or ironing the sheets (they still do that?). Being an avid reader myself, I tried recorded books, thinking it was another avenue to expand my reading. What a disaster!

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How Do You Read?

I was listening to an interview with Stanley Fish that was recorded not long after he published How To Write a Sentence. Fish’s contention in this work is that too much emphasis is being placed on the subject of students’ writing rather the the form. The results of this are the many almost unintelligible papers he reads which are being writing by his graduate students who in turn are teaching the basic undergraduate writing courses. Fish actually recommends writing that has no rhetorical objective but which is carefully crafted to meet the rules and needs of grammar, syntax, etc. Try it … it’s not easy.

I can see his point and liken it to doing scales over and over when learning to play the piano:  breaking out into a tune doesn’t develop the discipline required to play the piano well, even though it sounds good and mommy pats you on the head.

But Fish said something else that has made me think and I am continuing to mull it over. He suggested that there are two things you need to learn to become a good reader:  first, you had to learn to read slowly and methodically, and second, you had to learn to like reading that way.

I tend to read fast but when I am studying a text, I read very slowly and make notes along the way. Reading too fast is not productive; I cringe when I hear that someone has skimmed through the slow parts to get to the good stuff . Skimming is not reading. On the other hand, I have found that many books are more valuable to heat a room than to read. Perhaps all home libraries should include a working fireplace since even skimming is wasting too much time on many books.

This brings up the specter of books-on-tape or CD or iPod. These spoken books have value if the reader is blind but in that case it’s the best that can be expected. A fully sighted person that relies on recorded books is not reading:  you can see this if you consider that most avid users of recorded books admit that they are only relying on the recording when they are doing mindless tasks, typically driving. This simply means that a mindless state is allowing a recorded book to filter through it. Reading is not mindless.

I have developed some eye problems that are making it very difficult for me to read. I intend to follow Stanley Fish’s advice and read slowly, wiping the tears from my eyes at the end of each sentence and using a magnifying glass if need be. Hopefully when we get out of the prime allergy season I will regain some reading speed but perhaps by then I will have found that I like reading slowly.