So I was trying to slog through William Gibson’s newest book this week, and I realized that college has nearly ruined my ability to read.
I kept flipping the pages quickly, one after another, in the manner in which I have become accustomed to in the last few years. With every page I got more and more frustrated. I couldn’t understand a thing. Not a thing! The narrative had bizarre commas and abundant fragments, exposition-free jargon and terse descriptions—certainly not the long-winded run-ons I was used to. I wanted to throw the book at the wall. I was vexed. Gibson used to be so good—what could have possibly happened?
After some moping over this, I tried doing something I have not done in years: I read every word on the page.
Apparently, the haphazard speed reading style I’d developed in college is not conducive to immersive reading. Imagine that! For the last two years, I’d perfected the art of the “close skim,” in which I would basically run my eyes over the page quickly, looking for clumps of words I could read at once or glancing at every other sentence. Mostly, I just snatched up enough information to grasp the overall thesis of the work. This works surprisingly well with those ridiculously big Norton anthologies, as the text is cram-packed on the page in 8.5 font, tiny single space. It is perfectly easy to read five words at once with 8.5 font. After so much reading, you get to recognize patterns of words more than the words themselves. And I have a 4.0 GPA for my last 60 hours of college, which would suggest my comprehension with this tactic wasn’t too shabby.
But my Gibson book (or rather, my husband’s book; he still buys hardbacks for some bizarre reason) is printed in standard 1.5 spaced lines with 12 point font. Freakin’ gigantic! After reading books with so many tiny words crammed together, this book’s formatting is like slogging through mud, full of jerks and stops. The words were so big, I couldn’t see clumps of several words at a time. One word filled my whole eyespace. And with Gibson’s particular style, one part technical manual and one part hardboiled dime novel, there were patterns of words that were unrecognizable. I read pages quickly without grasping a single thing. I wanted to cry. I wanted to strangle William Gibson.
So, I tried slowing down. I reminded myself that I did not have to get the whole thing read by tomorrow in time for class. I let my eyes rest for a fraction of a second on. Every. Word. One. After. Another.
It was excruciating at first. I felt like a sprinter with lead weights strapped to my ankles.
But, slowly, I realized the text was beginning to make sense. At least, make sense in that sci fi kind of way where you don’t know the denotation of every word but that’s okay because you can still see the scene unfold in the mind’s eye. I was getting those brain pictures again, something I was sorely lacking, because my form of “close skim” works for intellectual engagement with the text but doesn’t allow those immersive mind pictures to pop up. Reading slowly, I was there, in the scene. I was enjoying myself.
It was magical.
So I have been practicing this skill of actual reading, and it’s been a lot of fun. I did not finish the book in an afternoon, but I actually feel like I’m there. I’m immersed. And that feeling of immersion is what encouraged me to go into college to study literature in the first place—quite the commentary on modern academia that intense study in one’s particular field is commonly what spoils one’s joy in that field. I am not the first person to have made this observation, either.
But now, I am free. I almost forgot how to read, but with practice I should remember the skill again. Maybe I’ll even get good at it. It doesn’t matter that I have to slog through the words on the page—my paper on this book is due on “never,” and that is freakin’ awesome.