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THE SPECIAL JOYS OF SUPER-SLOW READING

by Sydney Piddington
-------------------EVEN FOR the pressure-cooker world of advertising, it had been a frustrating, tension-building day. I
took home a briefcase full of troubles. A major contract was in danger of being lost at the last minute,
two executives of a company with whom we hoped to clinch a deal were being elusive, and a strike
threatened the opening of a business that held my money and my future.
As I sat down on that hot and humid evening, there seemed to be no solutions to the problems
thrashing around in my brain. So I picked up a book, settled into a comfortable chair and applied my
own special therapy--super-slow reading.
I spent three hours on two short chapters of Personal History by Vincent Sheean--savouring each
paragraph, lingering over a sentence, a phrase, or even a single word, building a detailed mental picture
of the scene. No longer was I in Sydney, Australia, on a sticky heatwave night. Relishing every word, I
joined foreign correspondent Sheean on a mission to China and another to Russia.
I lost myself in the author's world, living his book. And when I finally put it down, my mind was totally
refreshed.
Next morning, four words from the book--"take the long view"--were still in my mind. At my desk, I had
a long-view look at my problems. I concluded that the strike would end sooner or later, so I made
positive plans about what to do then. The two executives would see me eventually; if not, I would find
other customers. That left me free to concentrate on the main thing, saving the contract. Once more,
super-slow reading had given me not only pleasure but perspective, and helped me in my everyday
affairs.
I discovered its worth years ago, in the infamous Changi prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore. I was 19, an
artillery sergeant, when the city fell to the Japanese on February 15, 1942.
Waiting with other Australian POWs to be marched off, I tried to decide what I should take in the single
pack permitted. The only limit was what a weary man could carry the 17 miles to Changi. Our officer
thoughtfully suggested, "Each man should find room for a book."
So I stuffed into my pack a copy of Lin Yutang's "The Importance of Living"--a title of almost macabre
appropriateness--and began a reading habit that was to keep me sane for the next three and a half
years. Previously, if I had been really interested in a book, I would race from page to page, eager to
know what came next. Now, I decided, I had to become a miser with words and stretch every sentence
like a poor man spending his last dollar.
During the first few days at Changi, I took Lin Yutang out of my pack three or four times, just gazing at
the cover, the binding and the illustrated inside cover. Finally, as the sun went down one evening, I

walked out into the prison yard, sat down on a pile of wood and, under the glare of prison lights, slowly
opened the book to the title page and frontispiece. I spent three sessions on the preface, then two
whole evenings on the contents pages--three and a half pages of chapter headings with fascinating
subtitles--before I even reached page one. Night after night I sat there with my treasure. Fellow
prisoners argued, played cards and walked about all around me. I was oblivious, I disappeared so
completely into my book that sometimes my closest friends thought I had gone bonkers.
I had started with the practical object of making my book last. But by the end of the second week, still
only on page ten, I began to realize how much I was getting from super-slow reading itself. Sometimes
just a particular phrase caught my attention, sometimes a sentence. I would read it slowly, analyze it,
read it again--perhaps changing down into an even lower gear--and then sit for 20 minutes thinking
about it before moving on. I was like a pianist studying a piece of music, phrase by phrase, rehearsing it,
trying to discover and recreate exactly what the composer was trying to convey.
It is difficult to do justice to the intensity of the relationship. When Lin Yutang wrote of preparations for
a tea party, I could see the charcoal fire, hear the tinkle of tiny teacups, almost taste the delicate flavour
of the tea. I read myself in so thoroughly that it became not a mass of words but a living experience.
It took me something like two months to read Lin Yutang's book. By then, his philosophy on tea-making
had become my philosophy on reading: You can do it fast, but it's a whole lot better done slowly. I held
to the method, even after we had persuaded the Japanese to give us several hundred books from the
famous Raffles library in Singapore.
The realization dawned on me that, although my body was captive, my mind was free to roam the
world. From Changi, I sailed with William Albert Robinson, through his book Deep Water and Shoal. In
my crowded cell at night, lying on a concrete floor, I felt myself dropping off to sleep in a warm cabin,
the boat pitching under me. Next day, I'd be on deck again, in a storm, and after two or three graphic
paragraphs I'd be gripping the helm myself, with the roar of the wind in my ears, my hair thick with salt.
I wouldn't let go of the helm until we sailed into the calmer waters of a new chapter. If I had read with
my old momentum, it would have been like viewing Sydney Harbour from a speedboat, instead of
experiencing it from the deck of my own yacht.
My voyage took me just short of eight weeks. Had I raced through the book at my former speed, I could
never have experienced the blessed release of Robinson's reality becoming so vividly mine.
Sitting on a woodpile in the prison yard or crouched on my haunches in any unoccupied corner, I slowread biographies, philosophy, encyclopedias, even the Concise Oxford Dictionary. One favourite was W.
Somerset Maugham's The Summing Up. I was no longer on a rough prison woodpile, wasting away from
hunger; I was in an elegant drawing room on the French Riviera, a decanter of old port at hand, listening
to a great writer talking just to me about his journey through life, passing on the wisdom he had gained.
An average speed reader might dispose of The Summing Up in 50 minutes. But he wouldn't be living that
book with the writer, as I did during the nine weeks I took to read its 379 pages. (A slow reader himself,
Maugham wrote scathingly of those who "read with their eyes and not with their sensibility. It is a

mechanical exercise like the Tibetans' turning of a prayer wheel.") I handled The Summing Up so much
that it fell to pieces in the tropical heat.
Then I carefully rebound it with dried banana leaves and rubber gum. I still have it, the most treasured
volume in my bookcase.
I developed the habit in Changi of copying passages that especially appealed to me. One of these, from
Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means, told how training is needed before one can fully savour anything--even
alcohol and tobacco: "First whiskies seem revolting, first pipes turn even the strongest of boyish
stomachs....First Shakespeare sonnets seem meaningless; first Bach fugues a bore, first differential
equations sheer torture. But in due course, contact with an obscurely beautiful poem, an elaborate
piece of counterpoint, or of mathematical reasoning, causes us to feel direct intuitions of beauty and
significance."
I defy anyone to pick anything really significant out of a book like that by speed reading. It would be like
playing a Beethoven record at the wrong speed!
Once, something I copied proved useful in camp. Our own commander had ordered us to give any spare
clothing to our officers so they could appear immaculately dressed before the Japanese. The order
incensed everybody. I pinned over my bunk some words from T.E.Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
"Among the Arabs there were no distinctions, traditional or natural, except the unconscious power given
a famous sheik by virtue of his accomplishment, and they taught me that no man could be their leader
except that he ate the ranks' food, wore their clothes, lived level with them, and yet appeared better in
himself."
That night hundreds of slips of paper bearing these words were pinned up all over Changi. The affair was
over, a possible nasty conflict averted.
Beyond giving me the will to survive in Changi, slow reading helps me today. Of course, super-slow
reading is not for the man clearing out his briefcase or dealing with the Niagara of paper flowing across
his desk. I can skim an inter-office memo as fast as the next person. But when faced with a real problem,
to clear my mind of everyday clutter I will sit down quietly at home and slowly read myself into another
world.
As Lin Yutang wrote: "There are two kinds of reading, reading out of business necessity, and reading as a
luxury. The second kind partakes of the nature of a secret delight. It is like a walk in the woods, instead
of a trip to the market. One brings home, not packages of canned tomatoes, but a brightened face and
lungs filled with good clear air."
That is what super-slow reading is all about. Try it. As I read somewhere, a man is only poor when he
doesn't know where his next book is coming from. And if he can get out of a book everything the author
put into it, he is rich indeed.