Saturday, September 6, 2014

Speed-Reading

Marcel Proust


Why am I restricting myself to books, when these shelves have the capacity to store CDs as well, and space for paintings, photographs, sculptural ornaments? And besides, the different forms of creative expression are constantly intertwined.

This question arose when I stumbled on a passing note, while looking for something entirely different in an old diary; and the discovery pleased me enormously, because it was something that I wanted to know, and didn't remember that I had learned it once before. That the second theme in the first movement of the Sonata in D minor for Violin and Piano, Opus 75, by Camille Saint-SaĆ«ns, is the music that inspired the “petite phrase” from “Vinteuil’s Sonata” which became the love song of Charles Swann and Odette de Crecy in Proust’s “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu”.

What that diary-search also threw up, though it still was not what I was actually looking for, was a reference to a programme I had listened to on the BBC World Service, on my car radio one evening, an interview with a woman who had just won the world speed-reading competition for the seventh time, and set a new world record time while doing so. My thoughts turned to the possibility that she ought to be drug-tested like every other athlete, and to wondering what might be on the list of proscribed substances for such a competition: black coffee for certain, sugar without a doubt, tea obviously, but what about petites madelleines, what about other fruit besides oranges, what about that New England clam chowder to which Herman Melville was quite clearly addicted?

To win she had to read the latest Harry Potter novel, under exam conditions, followed by a comprehension test (is this not the equivalent of hosting the Open Golf championship on a putting green?). She managed all hundred and ninety thousand words in just forty-seven minutes, which must prove something, though whether about the pointlessness of speed-reading or the intellectual simplicity of Harry Potter is a bet on a two-horse race where all win prizes. I can see the use for school reports (I am pleased to see that Johnny has read over three hundred books this semester), or for competitions such as this one; even for filling up vacant copy-space on an otherwise empty newsday. But for literature? I have calculated her speed at four thousand, two hundred and thirty-four words per minute (she must be skipping), and suggest, at this rate, even with breaks to refill her glass of tea and dip one of those madelleines, that she could knock off Proust in well under a week. But isn’t reading him as slowly as possible a better stratagem? I confess that I began Volume One in 1977, and I am still hanging on a cliff to find out how things will finally go with Albertine.


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