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Up the hill, line by blessed line

If there's anything I envy it's a fast reader. To be able to glide through five hundred pages and remember what has been written seems to me a dazzling feat. I imagine it's like admiring someone for having a turned-up nose. It's not so much an achievement as it is a natural feature. It can, of course, be added to one's attributes, with a certain amount of labor. But I still consider it amazing, and gawk at anyone who devours a novel in a night.

Not that I haven't tried. I took a speed reading course when I was in high school. But the effort was such that my eyes felt as though they were doing a fifty-mile bike race, not only ignoring the scenery as they whizzed by but finding the whole experience exhaustingly unsatisfying. The techniques were promptly forgotten and I soon found I was slinking back to my old habit - reading each blessed word out loud to myself.

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By college, I knew I was in trouble. The book lists were long and the hours available short. Wanting to do well, I spent more time at my studies than most of my friends. I had to. You can't get through thirty books on the Renaissance in three months if you normally take three months to read three books, unless, that is, you study a lot and eliminate a little. Surprisingly, I managed to do well and somehow enjoy myself besides. But it was only because I loved learning and adored university life. Love always makes work seem like less of an effort.

At least that's what I told myself when eventually I went into journalism. Again, love played a pretty big part in my work, particularly when I was faced with mounds of earnest manuscripts to read, as well as the books and periodicals required for the job. One has to keep up, and of course I tried until my boss kindly came to the rescue and relieved me of the incredibly retarding task of editing. Little did I know the kindness that this involved, for I was later to learn that she, too, was encumbered with the annoying inclination to mosey along at a Southerner's pace through each paragraph.

And now, when I spend my entire time writing free-lance, rather than the multilayered demands of newspaper journalism, I am acutely sensitive to everything I read. No longer do I read just to enjoy a story or absorb information. I now, unfortunately, notice all the tricks and brushwork that go into making a book or a sentence work. Even if I have the gleeful sensation of slipping through a paragraph, I find myself reverting to the beginning, inspecting the structure or the choice of words, or simply savoring the imagery. This makes my passage somewhat cumbersome. Even the lightest of books is subjected to this irresistible tendency on my part.

But when I'm required to read the works of someone I'm about to interview, my head usually spins at the prospect. Regrettably that's not the response a responsible reviewer ought to have.

Awhile back I was asked to read the works of an admirable historian, a man who had written a scholarly book about an area I not only knew nothing about but had avoided at university. I had always considered it an area of scholarship I should look into and would - one day. And here that day was, facing me with a six hundred page tome in small print on that very complex subject. I accepted the project, knowing for me what it would entail, but certain that I could meet the challenge. I did, of course, and grew in the process. But my eyes felt like basketballs that had been dribbled too much. I set myself a program so that a specific number of pages had to be digested each day. But no matter how I tried to push myself along, unless I went at my natural (or rather unnatural) pace, I didn't know what I had read. Some chapters I reread three times to make sure I hadn't sloughed off in an effort to speed. In the end, I felt like Sisyphus, pushing a boulder (only in this case, my eyes) up an unending hill.

Perhaps the cruelest part of this torture is the fact that I love reading and would enjoy knowing as many books as I come across, which for another trying reason is a great deal. That reason is my husband, who, much to my humiliation, is a voracious reader. We have an extensive library that he goes through like a box of chocolates. And if that weren't galling enough, he's fed further books by my mother (another rapid reader) and then passes them on disparagingly to me. By my bedside stands an ever increasing queue of must-read books. On his side, sprawled all over the floor and under the bed, lie the remains of what he's read. At least I claim I am neat.

And I can also comfort myself with an occasional epithet at the television. This, in my view, is the culprit responsible for undermining my discipline. At the age when I was ripe for reading, television was made available. And, despite the tantalizing books offered by my parents, I lazily lost myself to this box of mesmerizing distraction. Which meant that in later life I had to catch up with all those children's books my husband had read at age five. Still, I suppose it's like saving the sweets for last, I have so much more to look forward to. That is, if I can ever get that far.

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