When I was a child, I thought speed reading was the thing to do. To cram all those wonders in, in almost no time at all: how wonderful it would be. I used to think about the champion readers immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records, that sacred text of my pre-teen years. Anna Karenina in three hours! I was in awe of such genius.
But ever since I started reading as a writer—this coincided with the first sprouting of my facial hairs, though I doubt there’s an essential connection—I’ve read more slowly. It generally takes me about two weeks to get through a two-hundred-page novel, and about a month for bigger books. If I have a long languid summer, I might get through a six-hundred-pager or two.
I can read rapidly—I did pick up the skill of absorbing the gist of a paragraph at one glance—but I have no interest in doing so. Every book I read these days is part of my study of writing: I want to know how things are put together on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the page.
Like those people who can take a sip of a soup and declare that it contains marjoram, basil, the faintest whiff of such and such a species of thyme and a hint of the earth the thyme was grown in, I am an oversensitive wreck. My own mania is for words, and it borders on synesthesia. I’ve been known to stay up late into the night marveling at the placement of a comma or at a poignant verb-adverb pairing.
In extreme cases—Here is Where We Meet is a recent example—so involved am I with the thing that I read almost as slowly as the writer wrote, somewhat like that old Russian lady who told Uncle Gabo that she copied out every word ofOne Hundred Years of Solitude so she would be sure she hadn’t imagined it all.
Plot is not the most interesting part of a book for me, and this frees me to take pleasure in book fragments. The author’s literary DNA is on every page, at least for any author worth her salt. So what if I start at page 120 and I abandon the book on page 203? What an encounter those eighty-three pages have been. The most fleeting of affairs, consummated with the passion of a death-row conjugal visit, fervid and yet full of delay-tactics.
I read page 346 of The Count of Monte Cristo last weekend, and grew wings.
One day I went to the bookshop and selected a pile of books—Svevo, Kafka, James, Calasso, about a dozen in all—and from each I read page fifty. Naturally, I often found myself in the middle of a sentence at the page’s beginning or end. But these are the fragments from which a life is made, like those snatches of conversation one hears on the subway, which are free-floating pages from a much larger and more intricate narrative. I eventually left the bookshop, late late in the afternoon, and it was as though I had been to the world’s greatest luncheon. I was sozzled on literary wine and the voices of the twelve brilliant guests echoed in my head.
And then there are those books I read and put away and pick up again and put away again. Not because there’s anything wrong with the book, but simply because I see no reason to consume it all at once. For example, I’ve been reading The Human Stain since June 2004. This work’s riches embarrass me, as a blueberry muffin with too many blueberries would. It’s undeserved, it’s sheer dumb luck on the reader’s part. I’m only on page 190, but it’s already one of my favorite books. I know how the story ends, I know who dies, I know who kills whom, but this has nothing to do with what I’m looking for in the work. Ten pages at a time is about all I can handle of Philip Roth, when he’s at his best. Actually, sometimes it’s just the one athletic paragraph, so clean and in tune with its own song, that knocks me off my charted course. I replace the bookmark, put the volume back on the shelf, and, sighing, remortgage my pact with the Devil. He already has my soul, and now we’re down to bartering the household crockery. Long may I continue to live and read and ever slowly read.
As for Love in the Time of Cholera, don’t even get me started. I’ve read the first hundred pages of that book no less than three times, Saint Ursula is my witness. The first time was out-loud to my wife, three pages a night. Maybe or maybe not I will eventually read the rest; more likely, I’ll go back and read the first hundred again. As I’ve said, that’s between me and Mephistopheles. All I know is that what little of it I’ve already taken in has set a fire in my life that I am unable to douse.
I enjoyed the first two sentences of Lolita—filthy, brilliant—so much that I put it down. For fear of damaging myself. I haven’t found the courage to pick it up again.
Beowulf’s first word bitch-slapped me. I surrendered. And I can’t even read Emily Dickinson at all; I simply console myself with the memory of her words.
I have abandoned that ecstatic fury in which one tears through an entire book over the course of nine hours, caffeine coursing through the veins, the wrists sore from page-turning, the eyes streaked with burst arterioles. No more of that for me, I’ve been saved from that particular variety of youthful indiscretion. But, worryingly, I seem to have recently picked up the nasty habit of reading novels right through to the end. As if getting to the end were the point. This is no joke: I’ve completed at least six books in the past three months. If these symptoms continue, I will consult my doctor. But for the most part, as I grow older, I’m less inclined to wolf down my nutrition, the opinions of the literature-police be damned. I think of prize judges and professional reviewers, those fifty-novels-a-year freaks of humanity, with a chuckle of relief: there but for the grace of God go I.
Life is too precious to waste on fast reading; I bet Neruda says something like that in his Memoirs, but I haven’t gotten to that part yet.
© 2007 Teju Cole. Used by permission. Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, street photographer, and Harvard’s first Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice. His novel Open City won the PEN/Hemingway Award. He is also the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine.