The whisk-broom way of reading

Read this quickly: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. That was good. You're a very fast reader. I'm not. That sentence would hang me up. I'd recognize it as one used to test typewriters and I'd go over it to see if, indeed, all 26 letters of the alphabet were represented. (They are.)

I might also wonder why I was asked to read quickly in the first place. I'd like some time to consider the fox: It seems to have a good sense of humor. And as for the dog, is it really lazy or is it, perhaps, shy?

In any case, I don't read fast. This fact used to cause me no little amount of guilt. For instance, when my wife and I would read something at the same time , like a letter from our six-year-old niece or a part of a fiduciary trust agreement, she would get up and start dinner before I was done with Page 1. So, out of a misguided sense of self-improvement, I found articles in popular magazines with titles like ''How Fast Do You Read?'', ''Reading for Speed and Comprehension,'' ''Read 'War and Peace' in One Night.'' I took the reading tests these articles inevitably contained, and I found that, although I am not exactly a dum-dum, ''War and Peace'' in one evening is definitely out. Maybe Judy Blume but never Tolstoy.

When I learned that I should be reading hundreds of words per minute faster, I tried all the little tips the articles gave me. I skimmed. I arranged words into groups, I made only two or three stops with my eyes on each line. I forced my eyes onward, ever onward, until - ''Stop! Stop!'' they (my eyes) would say. ''We saw something back there. We need more time. An instant replay.''

But I knew if I stopped, my w.p.m. would go down.

This was some time ago. The urgency in the speed reading articles doesn't bother me anymore. In fact, I ignore them now. And what's more, I've found others like me. We're not easy to detect. We don't hang out at slow readers' clubs. We don't wear a special pin in our lapel. If you're a fast reader you'll never be able to tell us from others. But we know each other by our secret code of ''Don't Needs.''

You see, I don't need to ingest tomes of new material daily in my work: music and antiques. If a lot of ''new material'' on Verdi or Bach or lacquer finishes or the regluing of tables is being written, is it absolutely essential that I read it now? This minute? It's not going to make any difference to Bach, certainly, or to the table if I take a tad longer to read about them. Can you imagine Placido Domingo crying, ''I can't sing 'Othello' tonight until I finish this new bio on Verdi!''

If the material is not about opera or Chippendale chairs, then what's the hurry? Do I need to save time when reading about courtship in the Middle Ages or exciting new ways to serve the neglected radish? Probably not.

Saving time is important only to fast readers. Some people say you'll save time if you underline words you don't know and go back later and look them up. Why wait until later? I want to know now. When I pause for a moment, so does the story. I've found a lot of good words in these pauses. When I resume reading, the story, I find, has not moved on without me.

And, in the name of ''saving time'' technical things are done to speed up our reading, like putting the footnotes at the back of the book. n1

n1 Thanks for looking down here. If this were at the back of the book, would you have bothered? This is preposterous! Those are not ''footnotes.'' They are ''back-of-the-book'' notes. I've flipped back and forth in a biography or historical novel only to find that the footnotes were merely a listing of sources. What a letdown. I'm expected an interesting aside and instead I get a title and some numbers. n2

n2 1. Thanks for looking down here. If this were at the back of the book, would you have bothered? Footnotes are important. I've read some books in which the footnotes were better than the stories.

In spite of all this, hasty readers (nimble readers?) maintain that speed-reading increases comprehension. They whoosh down the pages, sucking up information like a vacuum cleaner. So they say.

By comparison, I guess I follow along with a whisk broom and a dust pan inspecting what I find at leisure. The truth is, when I whoosh I only remember how many times I stopped on a line, and I seem to put the wrong subject and predicate together, and the wrong people and facts. If there are people on the page to be met, I don't want to say, ''Hi! How are ya?'' and leave them holding on to their hats. I want to get to know them while we look up words together. And when we part (two or three months later), they'll say, ''Now that was a good reader. Slow, but good.''

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