Written by Wesley J Callihan
Never speed-read good books. Speed-reading is only for books which you need to get through once and will never read again. If you read them again you’d get nothing more out of them. But the best books (and if you never read them, you’re living on junk food), the ones you’ll get more from every time you read them if you read them well, deserve to be read slowly. Of course, you could speed-read a great book — say, Augustine’s City of God or Dante’s Divine Comedy or Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — and you could get the gist of it. But is the gist all there is?
If my wife goes to the trouble of making a wonderful meal of prime rib, mashed potatoes and gravy, salad, and cherry pie, it’s terribly rude for me to rush through the meal, gulping down my food and hurrying from the table. More importantly, I would miss much of the nutrition that can only be gotten by chewing slowly. And most importantly of all I’d miss the delight and spiritual nutrition of the circumstances that make the meal so pleasurable — appreciation of the place settings and fine china and the enjoyment of the company and conversation that make up the fellowship of the table. We experience the same kind of loss when we speed-read a great book and ignore the pleasure of the binding, the print, the smell, the heft, and the ribbon marker, but especially the sound of the words, the rhythm and style and diction, which can only be savored at a normal, human, read-aloud speed, the pace at which the author wrote and at which he read his manuscript aloud to his friends.
We are not gnostics — or at least we shouldn’t be — but eating as though the tablecloth, china, crystal, nice clothes, and good conversation are not essential parts of the meal is a kind of gnosticism. And so is reading a good book as though the body of the book and the sound, rhythm, weight, diction, and taste of the words is not essential. Wisdom comes not from stripping out some Platonic essence from the meal or the book as we rush through it, but from moving with the author at his pace and experiencing the things he put into his book that we can never even notice when we read too fast. If you’ve only read a great book at a great rate of speed, you cannot in good conscience say that you’ve read it. You wolfed your food.
But if you read a great book slowly — better still, aloud, or at least moving your lips — you can taste those long, juicy vowels, the crisp, chewy consonants, you can hear the swing and symmetry of the clauses and periods, and the very muscles of your mouth will participate as you speak the words. Learning comes in through three doors — eyes, ears, and mouth — instead of just one. And there are things to learn from the sound and rhythm and taste that we will miss if we read too fast.
Read the opening passage from The Pilgrim’s Progress silently and quickly:
“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: And as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a man cloathed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a Book in his hand, and a great Burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the Book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, What shall I do?”
You understood the story, didn’t you? But now, please go back and read it aloud, slowly, and with feeling, almost exaggerating the inflection. Do it twice. Notice the sound and the shape of your mouth as it makes the W’s, S’s, D’s, and B’s, and the long O’s, E’s, and A’s. Listen to the rhythm of the passage and the pace of the clauses. Do you see how it adds to the richness of the passage, a richness that the quick silent reading would never recognize? Of course, if you’re reading this essay quickly and didn’t actually go back and read the paragraph aloud when I asked you to, you won’t understand.
In our Christian circles we often glibly say that “meditation” in the Psalms means something like a cow chewing the cud. But how often have we thought about how literally David might have meant that? Medieval monks had a method of reading called “lectio divina” — divine reading — in which they read the Bible and other great books slowly, aloud, and chewed over the words to extract every morsel of nutrition from not only the ideas but the very sounds and tastes of the words of a Scripture passage or a church father. But we in the modern world have too little time, and the same pressure that drives us to gobble fast-food meals on the run causes us also to read everything, even our Bibles, much too fast.
We starve our souls and our minds and wonder why there is so little wisdom in the world.
Wesley Callihan teaches Old Western Culture: Greeks and Romans course. He grew up on a farm in Idaho and graduated in History from the University of Idaho in 1983. He has taught classics and the Great Books at Logos School in Moscow, Idaho; the University of Idaho; New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho; and at Veritas Academy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Wes likes to read, garden, watch movies, fish and hunt, travel. He and his wife have six children.