My Take

A word to the wise on speed reading

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 December, 2015, 12:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 2:59pm

In one of my all time favourite movies, Reuben, Reuben, the main character, a drunken poet, is having dinner with a bunch of pretentious and wealthy dentists whose wives he has all secretly bedded.

One of the dentists boasts of his prowess as a speed reader after having taken a course in the subject. The man claims he can read War and Peace in one sitting.

To that, Tom Conti, the actor who plays the poet loosely based on the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, says: "If I were reading, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, I would want to read it as slowly as possible, to savour every word."

I was somehow reminded of this scene after education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim claimed in public he could read 30 books a month and more than 10 books during a flight that lasts over 10 hours.

Actually, I think by books, he also included magazines. Still, reading two dozen magazines from cover to cover is no joke.

Ng has been widely ridiculed for making such statements. In his defence, it seems to me that speed reading can be a very useful skill, depending on what materials you are reading. It can, needless to say, also be counterproductive, such as when you are reading War and Peace and Tender Is the Night.

I just took a course offered by the Hong Kong Journalists Association on how to quickly read financial statements and spot any corporate shenanigans. Now that's a skill I am still learning, but it strikes me as something extremely useful. But that's not a skill you would want to use when reading, say, Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness. When I was in college, I spent more than a month labouring through the first 90 pages, generally acknowledged to be the most difficult sections, compared to which the rest of the book was a piece of cake.

By contrast, I am currently reading the breezy and erudite book on Japan, Bending Adversity, by Financial Times' ace journalist David Pilling. That's the type of book you can read quickly and learn much.

A large part of any education worthy of the name consists of the reading of books. The key, it seems, is to be able to discriminate between those that you can read quickly, and those that you need to read slowly and carefully - to learn and enjoy.