I can’t be the first person to want a supercomputer in my head instead of gray matter. Not all the time, but I want something more effective for keeping track of what I meant to do when I walked into the room or after I put the kid to bed. I wish I had a computer-mind when I do any sort of math, recalling a documentation protocol at work, or whenever I’m talking baseball and can’t name the player I obsessed over just last year.
I’m rarely grateful for my soft, whimsical, slippery mind. My mind that forces me to stop, to re-read. It takes such focus to memorize the smallest detail, and such digging to recall it again later. Mastery of anything worth knowing again can mean hours of practice, and who has time?
I want to be the Michael Phelps of reading.*
It is hard to see slow reading as anything but inefficiency. There is the newspaper every morning—not one, actually, but hundreds of newspapers, and also all of those videos, blogs, and editorials. There are trade journals and resume-writing guides, books about parenting or conceiving or avoiding conception. There is book club on Saturday and the text study on Wednesdays. Slow reading means less time for the report you need to write, the sleep you’re short on, or the small child tugging at your pant leg. When you approach all these things you hope for convenience, pick your priorities, and read fast. You and I will never be equipped to handle it all. We have jelly, not motherboards.
I’m assuming here that more knowledge is better. Or let’s “work smarter, not harder” and say I want the right quantity of the best knowledge at the right time. Either way I’m assuming that efficiency equals a better life. Is this accurate? We can get caught up in being faster faster faster when we assume that everything worth knowing must of course be available in some easily-digestible format. Western culture has taught us this, and has glorified certain mental capacities over others.
But nature keeps throwing us a curveball. It seems a large part of our brains was designed not for speed but for reflectiveness; not for analysis but imagination. Moreover, according to many scholars, that imagination is our surest route to certain forms of truth. Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope, and Poetry (Ashgate, 2012) is both comforting and unsettling because it insists that empirical knowing—the foundation of proven experience in Western culture—needs to be balanced with the subjective (4). Even more disquieting is the idea that some events around us can best be described in ambiguous terms or through metaphors that offer no clear interpretation. These are not things that we can make sense of in a speed read, and an empirical study won’t do the trick, either. If Guite’s assumptions are wise, then there is a good deal of un-learning and re-learning to do. After all, the kinds of truth he refers to require us to explore a text for ourselves. No amount of SparkNotes or YouTube can do it for us. The good news in all this is that the book can help restore a person’s faith not only in imagination, but also in the impulse to slow down and breathe once in a while.
Where do we start? How do we restore balance to our perspective on the world? If you’re the sort of person who does this best by reading, then Guite is again an excellent guide. His major point in the “Introduction” to Faith, Hope & Poetry has to do with poetic imagination. At root, this means deepening and expanding our trust in language. By reading a poem or story we are already trusting the words on the page to represent something beyond themselves. The combination of c, h, a, i, and r is something we English speakers agree makes the word chair. Of course, we might disagree about what kind of chair, and many scholars have argued convincingly that questions like “what kind of chair?” actually matter more than we might think. But Guite’s point—and George Steiner’s before him—is that we have to trust words to represent certain things. If you are reading something rich and complex, then the quality of your reading experience can improve when you take your faith in language a step further. If the text is something meant to savor, a poem or several pages of literary fiction, then our hurried, conquest-driven methods of reading are sorely inadequate. And if such a writer has earnestly asked God to speak through her or him in this piece of writing, then there is an even greater incentive to re-learn how to read. Reading poetry is a snorkeling expedition, after all, not the 200m butterfly.**
For Guite, reading well is about recovering methods that worked beautifully for wisdom-seekers in other ages but that we have forgotten or dismissed. He breaks this down into five separate processes, and each has its own joys and discoveries:
- “Tasting the Words”: slowing down and enjoying a poem for the richness of sounds and meaning. Guite’s favorite strategy is lectio divina or “prayerful reading,” which was a common practice among European monks reading scripture many centuries ago. It is meditative, repetitious reading, often spoken either aloud or in the voice of the mind. Anyone who has learned speed-reading techniques should put them aside. Lectio divina involves “assimilating the content of a text by means of a kind of mastication which releases its full flavor.”
It should go without saying that a person should only practice lectio divina with texts that he would like to “assimilate” deeply into his consciousness. These techniques are powerful, which means they are not safe or risk-free. Through this kind of reading a text will change us.
- “Echo and Counterpoint”: letting the reading be enhanced by attention to the way words and phrases from different segments of the poem reinforce or are in tension with each other, much like a song will have melodies and counter-melodies that build upon each other.
- “Image and Allusion”: seeking ways that a poem is working in relation to other literary texts. There are no correct answers as you do this. He borrows from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to say that literature is interconnected and alive, so that when something new is added it can send new energy or meaning to texts written centuries ago. A poem is meant to stir up memories of other art you’ve experienced.
- “Ambiguity and Ambivalence”: Guite recommends that we “be open to, and delighted with, ambiguity” (29). Rather than struggle to reduce multiple meanings or to “choose sides,” he invites us to embrace the multiple tones and voices in poetry. Even if we believe that God’s word to us is solid and sure, most of our experiences are anything but simple. Even the Psalms are often tense with doubt.
- “Perspective and Paradox”: allowing the poem to work on you. In Guite’s words, this is when “you think you are reading the poem, but the poem is reading you” (30). Just as Jesus’ parables had the power to shock their readers into a new way of understanding a situation, in the same way excellent poetry can “bring out in us the unexpected music that we had never known was waiting to be played.”
None of the items above are revolutionary to the literary world. You might have learned some of them when you found a book that you wanted to curl up into, or found a poem that knew what you were thinking. Before you learned to be a speed reader, leaping whole paragraphs or pages that seem irrelevant. Don’t worry, you can switch back into that gear if you need to.
Your mind is not a computer. Your mind is gray matter. And though it may not be particularly well-equipped to remember what time you were supposed to meet your friend or whose turn it is to mow the lawn, it is primed and ready to dig into that book of poetry you’ve been meaning to pick up.
Try reading it slower. Go ahead, you got this.
We want to hear from you …
- Are any of the five “ways of reading” familiar to you? What was your experience?
- How do you handle the need for speed reading in the Information Age?
- What does it take for the mind to “shift gears” (metaphorically speaking) from reading something that must be absorbed quickly to a text that deserves a more meditative approach? Do you have any strategies for this?
**image copyright Getty Images
**image copyright tahiti.com