The written landscape

NOT long ago I watched a TV personality explaining how he regularly read six books in a morning. It was a matter of seeing the whole page at once as one did a picture, he said. Having just muddled through several pages on stock options, about which I know nothing, I doubted him. Ah yes. See it as a picture - like Rembrandt's ``Polish Rider'' perhaps. ``Look - a man on a horse. I've got that one. Now what's next?'' Perhaps the National Gallery could provide electric motorcycles so the viewers could speed through in a flash, taking in all of each picture at a glance.

Reading instructors advise people to perceive words in groups. They say that comprehension increases with speed as we overcome the unskilled habit of moving the eye to each word. Without doubt this is correct - up to a point. All skilled readers can take in word groups, and the best adapt their methods to the particular reading task they are engaged in. But very often super-efficiency misapplied is ultimate defeat.

This is obvious in poetry, in which a single word may radiate meanings one can chase down many crooked, shadowed avenues. A single poem has often become the subject of a whole book exploring its meaning.

What, precisely, do the closing lines of the ``Ode on a Grecian Urn'' mean, especially since Keats punctuated them differently in different manuscripts, throwing the sentence toward nearly opposite possibilities? ``Oh,'' our TV guru might say after a glance, ``that's a poem about pictures on a vase. I read all the Keats odes in 46 seconds with complete comprehension.''

No doubt the speed readers take in Montaigne in three gulps, Eliot in two, and pass through the ``Spring'' chapter in ``Walden'' as if it were a haiku on cherry blossoms.

But those who have taught the same good books repeatedly for many years, pondering them each time, hearing the wise things students say, and reading a variety of published views of them, find that such books grow and change constantly in the thought. The readings are never repetitious.

Perhaps one might say that a masterpiece is a book that really begins to flower in the thought during the third or fourth reading, yet still pours out insights during the 15th. Richness of meaning is, after all, the whole point. One might venture the view that such readers are the only ones who understand truly good books. They have begun to give something like the same attention to the texts that the writer did.

No one would claim that every book is worth that. But one might wonder if any landscape is very visible at 90 miles an hour. Yes, it's clear we should learn to read easily, not ponderously. But the ability to read ponderingly is not something to overcome. Yes, we might speed read sports reports (unless they are by Red Barber), many political speeches, and perhaps even this essay if what we are looking for is only its major point.

But try to speed read the following passage: ``If you used an employer-provided highway motor vehicle for both personal and business use and your employer included 100 percent of the fair rental value of the vehicle in the wages, tips, and other compensation box (Box 10) of your W-2 form, you must use Form 2106, Employee Business Expen-ses, to claim a deduction for the business use of the vehicle.''

That is just one sentence from the instructions for filing the 1986 United States federal income tax. It is perfectly clear, too. Nor has it any philosophical subtleties. It is less than 4 percent of the material on the page, which assumedly can all be taken in in one look like a picture. I trust that most supersonic readers have accountants who work through the material slowly enough to get the details right.

What of some of the more involuted passages in the Epistles of Paul? Getting at the meaning there is prying at hard knots. Might one say that any book that can be understood in one-sixth of a morning is probably not worth even that short time? It is meaning we are after - clarity, implication, possibility, logical relationships, the beauty of language, the delicacy of human interchange. What depths of contemplation, of the joy of verbal texture, of the aural quality of dialogue, of structural interre-lationships are wasted by frenetic reading.

When we look at a desert from the air, it may seem bleak to us, but close up it is a miracle of fascinating detail. It surely is helpful to see the overall picture, but daily life is conducted at ground level. Good reading is one of mankind's greatest gifts, and getting clear meanings from it is neither easy nor quick. Let us not be intimidated by the speedsters.

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