Wednesday 19 February 2014

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I have been running a film club in the school where I work for the last four months and a bit. It is one of those activities that gives me great satisfaction. I had already had a similar experience before but the difference this time is that the club members are really keen to write about the movies they have watched. The weekly session is divided between screen time on a Tuesday and online review time on a Wednesday. As I said to them after I showed the first film: watching a flick is not just about entertainment, it’s also about seeing the credits roll up at the end. It’s about the experience, as a whole.

So, what’s a film club got to do with literature, I hear you ask me? A lot, as it happens. One characteristic of this after-school club is that some of the members are what is commonly known as EAL children (English as an Additional Language). Through the medium of cinemascope I am providing them with opportunities to improve their reading and writing. It is too soon to talk about results but so far the majority of non-native English speakers have risen to the challenge. I have also noticed a phenomenon that reminded me of my own childhood: speed-reading.

The way I usually start my online review sessions is with guidelines to help members write better posts. My rule is simple: no one-word reviews, or one-liners. To that effect I get them to choose from headings I have already prepared for them. I also get them to read the headings aloud, helping those students (EAL or not) who lack the confidence to do so. What works in my favour in this enterprise is the size of this special “writing” club; roughly ten or eleven regulars out of the twenty members in total I have on screening days. The following will not surprise anyone who’s been around children of primary school age. Some whiz through the sentences I’ve copied on the board like miniature Michael Schumachers of the written word. Others read as if each word has been fitted with its own brain and it is pondering whether to come out or not. Some people, including teachers, see the former as a measure of success. But does speed equal efficiency? Is a fast reader a better reader than a slow one?

I learnt how to read and write before I was meant to. As I have mentioned before on this blog, I had the misfortune to be diagnosed with gastritis and stomach ulcer when I was five. That meant missing out huge chunks of curriculum time when I was in reception. My mother made up for this by teaching me how to read and write when I was bed-ridden in hospital. By the time I began my Year 1 I was well ahead of the class in literacy (not so much in numeracy and the maths curse has followed me since then). I became, not just a fluent reader, but also a fast one. The type who left visitors to my house with their mouths gaping open. Over time I developed this trait internally as well. When reading in silence as a child I sped through passages. I sometimes used to read entire books in two or three days.

Agree or disagree?
But whilst this gave me confidence in reading and developed my love for literature, I don’t think it skilled me up much for in-depth reading. This is the type of activity you do in further and higher education. By the time I started university in ’89 I was ill-equipped to cope with the amount of literature my course included. The other disadvantage I found was that up to then I had the freedom to choose my reading material, whereas now, in uni, I was expected to delve into books that sometimes didn’t interest me much, classic status notwithstanding.

That was when I slowed down. I remember it was Margaret Atwood’s fiction that caused me to forgo the strict timeline I imposed on myself and to seek out and enjoy instead the beauty of a well-crafted sentence. Whereas before the plot was my main source of literary fulfilment, now I also began to pay closer attention to the nuances of sentences, ideas and words. Doing a degree that dealt with linguistics helped me out, too. I started to look at languages (English and Spanish alike) in a different light.

All this came to my mind recently. Not just because of the progress my film club members have made, but also because I have been on a good run in terms of the books I have read. First it was The Smile of theLamb by the Israeli writer David Grossman. Using a Palestinian village in the West Bank as setting, this many-layered novel explored two sides of the occupying forces in Uri and Katzman; the former an idealistic type of soldier, sympathetic towards the villagers, the latter a more gung-ho squaddie. The style was rich, beautiful and delicate with plenty of cliff-hangers to keep the reader hooked. Then came Grace Notes, a novel in which musician Catherine McKenna, the main character, had to come to terms with her past: on the one hand, a claustrophobic Catholic upbringing and on the other hand, a destructive relationship with a drunken and abusive man. Despite the subject matter, this was a very poetic book about the healing power of music in the face of adversity.

The hat-trick has just been completed by NoViolet Bulawayo and her Booker Prize-nominated novel We Need New Names (I haven’t finished reading it yet at the time of writing this post, though. But I’ve got only about twenty-odd pages to go).  At times innocent and at times brutal, the book demands to be read at a slow pace, the better to savour sentences like this one, thought up by the main character, Darling: In America we saw more food than we had seen in all our lives and we were so happy we rummaged through the dustbins of our souls to retrieve the stained, broken pieces of God.

Three books that acted as reminders about why being a fast reader doesn’t mean being a better reader, in my opinion. Now, if I could just get this message across to the members of my film club.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 23rd February at 10am (GMT)


  1. it can help you get through, but that is all it does. Things tend not to sink in

  2. To begin, I applaud your work with the film class, CiL. It serves a practical purpose and, I would imagine, an enjoyable/entertaining experience for your students. Sliding sideways a bit, I always have enjoyed critiquing film adaptations of novels along with the book itself in the same piece. Or, comparing two or three film adaptions of the same novel.

    I am not certain I ever qualified as a speed reader, but my pace picked up considerably when I jumped from reporting into desk work and editing under daily newspaper deadline pressure. A person either adjusts to handling it or looks for another line of work.

    In terms of reading for myself, I have been known to "binge read" one book after another for several days at a time, usually at hectic pace if not an actual frenzy. There have been occasions I have timed myself when reading a particularly long book. But, it also is not unusual for me to read and to re-read pages, or even portions of a book, at a snail's pace to absorb every word into my psyche.

    Another fascinating post, Cil .... and, I am not ignoring your question, I am answering it the long way ....

  3. I've never felt any desire to read fast. Perhaps because I've used books for so long as an escape or as a road into another world. With a really good book I don't want to finish it.
    That is so cool what you're doing with the kids and film. I think a lot of kids relate more to film nowadays than they do reading.

  4. I read fast, a habit I developed when I had to get books belonging to my brothers read and back on their shelves in a hurry. It is sometimes very useful but to savour and to fully appreciate complex issues I slow down.
    Best of both worlds.

  5. I'm with Elephant's Child - sometimes I read quickly and other times I slow down to appreciate lovely sentences or the nuances of character.

    For me it goes back to reading history at university - I need to get through a lot of books and find the nuggets I needed, and learned to skim-read till I found the bit I needed. Now, when I'm busy of distracted to engage in anything significant, I'll rush - but when I've the time and head-space I'll take on books with more 'meat' in them and slow down.

  6. Speed reading isn't for literature - but definitely a great tool when you need to scan something for specific information - e.g. find out the time of a train, get a phone number from a directory and so on.

  7. Congrats on the film class. I'm with Fram that you should be applauded for your fine service. And I use to read fast and devour many books a week but now, in my forties, I enjoy savoring a book and studying the way an author approaches a character, subject, or even a line. I recently finished THE REAL LIFE OF SEBASTIAN KNIGHT and marvel at Nabokov's poetic prose. I would have missed a lot of the nuances if I had zipped through the masterpiece.

  8. it comes down to comprhension and understanding to me...i can read a book fast/still comprehend and feel the emotion in the prose...i am def not skimming, but i figure you can process a movie which is under 3 hours visually, can you do the same thing with text? there are def those that i savor and would love to go on...

    cool stuff with your film group too...

  9. The film club is an excellent and interesting idea. I read a lot but I don't know if I can be classed as a speed reader or a slow one but I do like to see how authors use phraseology. That helped a lot when I started to write.

  10. A film club to help reading and writing is a great idea! I had so many books to read in my English classes in college that I was forced to read fast. The trouble I had was understanding the bigger context. Had I watched a film before I read Great Expectations, for instance, I would have had the context down pat.

  11. nice... i'm not a slow reader but sometimes speed through a book as well that i think should take the time to's like eating... if you slow down you have more time to taste the flavor

  12. Thanks for your kind comments. I have just read (slowly) a marvellous essay by the British writer James Wood in the latest issue of the London Review of Books. The article was on the concept of "home" and the various meanings of it. Wood has lived 18 years in the US. Expect me to blog about it soon.

    Greetings from London.

  13. I would really have benefitted of reading faster. But I never learned it.

  14. When I was younger I had a very high reading & comprehension rate, but these days I'm a slow reader because it seems to take longer for my brain to work (all those years of gathering stuff means my mental cupboards are FULL and it takes more time to retrieve things!!!) :)

    I agree, though, genuine speed reading is not getting through easy books fast, it's getting through complex books fast and, at the end of the book, having a true grasp of the subject matter (whether fiction or non fiction)

  15. I'm a great fan of reading slowly and savouring the text. I like reading in foreign languages partly because it forces me to slow down....

  16. Well you've just added another book on top of my pile of books to read. I also highly recommend Americanah by Chimamana Adichie, if you haven't already read it. I agree, fast reading is not always the best kind of reading and this technique often encourages skimming over points and not fully absorbing imagery. Some books encourage fast reading with compelling plots and other's like all Toni Morrison's, tomes, defy any easy, quick goings over. I think I'd like to take your class. You should offer it online.

  17. i bet your a great teacher and love your technique have a great weekend



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