Reading Speed: Aristocratic

The art of conversation by René Magritte (1950)—slow down, look. Rêve is dream in French.


In an age obsessed with saving time, reading speed is increasingly scrutinised. Brevity, clarity, immediate relevancy—done! Click on the next link.

The prize is gratification at the price of linguistic mystique.

Lyrical novels are the obverse. Looping descriptions, metaphors upon symbols upon embedded stories, resonances with previously unexplored feelings and questions questions questions—not done! Not done, even when the last word is read.

The prize is linguistic mystique at the price of gratification.

The dichotomy isn’t so obvious: lengthy thrillers immediately pertain to the specific goal of fun pastime, as do mystery novels; on the other hand, short poems resonate for years, as do certain “clear”, brief statements or questions (traditional sayings, koans).

In fact:

One. This dichotomy isn’t drawn between nonfiction and fiction, or between genre and literary, or between prose and poetry.

Two. This dichotomy isn’t about the words per minute one person can read compared to another.

Three. This dichotomy isn’t well-defined.

Four. A better-defined dichotomy is that of renown French literary critic, Roland Barthes, who divides the world of texts according to one of the two systems of reading applied to each text.

 The translator, Richard Miller, makes clear that Barthes’s original Pleasure of the Text is far more titillating than the English version. (The book, after all, centres on the explicit, almost erotic pleasure that can be derived from a text.) If there’s one reason to learn French—

Quote: Whence two systems of reading: one goes straight to the articulations of the anecdote, it considers the extent of the text, ignores the play of language (if I read Jules Verne, I go fast: I lose discourse, and yet my reading is not hampered by any verbal loss—in the speleological sense of that word); the other reading skips nothing; it weighs, it sticks to the text, it reads, so to speak, with application and transport, grasps at every point in the text the asyndeton which cuts the various languages—and not the anecdote: it is not (logical) extension that captivates it, the winnowing out of truths, but the layering of significance; as in the children’s game of topping hands, the excitement comes not from a processive haste but from a kind of vertical din (the verticality of language and of its destruction); it is at the moment when each (different) hand skips over the next (and not one after the other) that the hole, the gap, is created and carries off the subject of the game—the subject of the text. Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen to the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away,” the seam of the two edges, the interstice of bliss, occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover—in order to read today’s writers—the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers.

(The colour and underlining—available in some browsers—are intended as pointers to the islets of particular interest in this sea of words.)

A guide through the punctuation traffic (and tips for writers):

Illustration. Captivating non-fiction, even arbitrarily abstract, benefits from offering examples as footholds for the imagination. For example: Verne, Zola, game of topping hands.

Repurposing. The creative adaptation of words can aid the reader’s motivation to return to a text. For example: Speleological, winnowing, vertical din, limit-text, interstice of bliss, aristocratic. (Also the sophisticated asyndeton, which I’ll discuss next time.)

Repetition. An idea can be reinforced through synonyms. For example: the hole, the gap, and to devour, to gobble. The repeated notion is more memorable, and any further synonym is easily recognised, therefore providing a breather in a dense text.

Reduplication. An idea can be developed through minor, cumulative variations of the same statement. For example: it weighs, it sticks to the text, it reads… with application and transport, grasps at every point in the text the asyndeton which…. (Note here the auxesies or climactic ordering.) Another example: to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover. This tactic is common in fiction, where the ground a metaphor covers is extended over the course of multiple paragraphs. (See Writing Extended Metaphors for an in-depth analysis of how Martín Adán extends life is a puddle in his novel Cardboard House.)

Redefinition. A radical reduplication is an appositive, which renames the noun it stands by. For example: the modern text is the limit-text, and the seam of the two [linguistic] edges is the interstice of bliss. Put differently, definitions can nicely be compactified using commas instead of copulas.

Often a discussion about reading focuses on a comparison between the abilities of different people, or on how to improve one’s own ability. The former is deleterious; the latter is desirous only in as much as it teaches the tricks of skim-reading.

The Quote points to two fundamental aspects of the discussion that are left out.

The first aspect is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored. Whilst close reading is taught in schools, the overall time pressures of homework and exams mean slow, aristocratic reading isn’t encouraged, which can lead to an entrenched belief that all books ought to be read quickly, and those that can’t be read quickly are boring (and that an app can provide an adequate summary).

The second aspect I haven’t seen written down anywhere else explicitly. A vital part of experiencing a text is reading it at the correct speed. Read some books too fast and they’ll be nonsense (E. E. Cummings is typo-ridden, the Tao Te Ching is equivocating). Read some books too slowly and the book will drop from your hands (Verne and Zola according to Barthes). It may be easy to acknowledge the pole cases, but the middle-ground is wide and potentially wildly misjudged.

Especially with exceptions: Anne Carson can be read in both ways (fast as an addiction, slowly as a marvel).

Pigeonholing a text determines its interpretation (is it fact or fiction? is it in earnest or is it sarcastic?), so too does reading speed. Race, rush, walk or stroll. Meander, stand, reverse, or circle then spiral. For each book, or better, for each passage or page there is a speed best suited to bringing out the magic. It’s a matter of knowing that variation is allowed, indeed, is necessary.

Like with most dances for two, it’s also a matter of intense, directed attention.

The text will guide a reader to pleasure, but only if the reader is willing to follow the guide.

The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James) by René Magritte (1937)

2 responses

  1. I am definitely a slow, aristocratic reader…I like to savor a book like a good meal, and absorb all of the little nuances and flavors of the text. For me, it makes for a richer experience, and I can recall every little minute detail that much easier. I wish that I could speed read, but that’s never been in the cards for me (if I want to remember what I’m reading)! The only time that speed reading has worked for me was for test taking in school…I could buzz through a text and pick out the major points, and be ready for a test.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, sounds like you get a lot from each text!

      It seems that a lot of people default to either fast or slow, and that it takes an effort to achieve the other speed. Indeed, some limited anecdotal evidence would suggest—contrary to expectation—that it’s equally hard to read slowly and absorb the text deeply if you’re used to whizzing through as it is to learn speed-reading if that isn’t your natural mode.

      I also do think that Barthes has a point, some books aren’t meant to be read at speeds which allow for speleological explorations. Namely, a plot-based thriller is hardly going to merit getting hung up on every word… (Which is why if I’m used to getting hung up on every word, it’s hard to switch away from that and actually enjoy the action.)


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