At any point, I have two or three library books in my room. They aren’t textbooks; some of them are not even remotely related to my classes. Right now, I have “Logicomix – An Epic Search for Truth”, Graham Priest’s “Beyond The Limits of Thought” and “My Life in My Words” – a composed autobiography of Rabindranath Tagore. The list of books to be read is even longer. Yesterday, I read an excerpt of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and felt compelled to borrow the book from the library. When I finished reading Logicomix, I decided I had to read the author’s other book – “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture”.
Although I keep borrowing these books, hardly do I find the time to read them. Two weeks ago, I found “Logicomix” , a graphic novel on Bertrand Russell’s life and work, in the Mathematics library. I spent the next four hours curled in bed, holding the book open next to me. When I finished reading, it was 8:30PM. I had a homework due for my algorithms class in 3 hours and I hadn’t completed it. I ended up taking a late day and devoting all of my Friday evening to completing that homework.
Making time for leisure reading during a semester is difficult, and mostly happens at the expense of academic or social pursuits. It’s hard to decide which to prioritize. I can’t neglect coursework because it’s my primary job here. I can’t shut myself in my room and read forever either, but probably never again in my life will I have access to a library like Cornell’s.
So when I saw a poster advertising a speed reading program at Cornell, I thought I had found a solution. If only I could read faster, I could read my books without sacrificing the time spent on academics or friends. I attended the first session for speed reading last week. A peer tutor introduced me to spreedr and some techniques for reading faster. I tried a couple passages with it. I didn’t understand all the details, but I got a good gist of what I was reading. The tutor said that it was normal; the idea was to absorb as much as possible in a shorter period of time.
Later that night, I tried spreedr with a passage I had to read for my philosophy class. I got a general sense of the author’s ideas but I didn’t catch the details of his arguments. I didn’t understand enough to form my own opinion on the topic. Still, it was enough to help me get through philosophy lecture the next morning. It seemed like a great tool if I needed to cram for an exam or skim through some reading for class. But I realized that it beats the purpose of leisure reading.
When reading for yourself, the concept of speed makes no sense because time doesn’t exist there. I can dwell on a particular paragraph I find beautiful or turn the pages back because I missed a minor detail there. It’s a break from the days of rushing from one commitment to another, of micro-planning my time to finish routine homework and other tasks. It’s liberating to simply be in one place and give my complete attention to the present experience, without worrying about a deadline for it.
Introducing the concepts of speed and productivity to this experience felt like a violation of a sacred space. I decided to allow the books to rest on my desk; there was no hurry to finish reading them. In the short time that my schedule allows me, the experience of reading with presence is more important to me than the quantity of information I absorb. I ended up cancelling the next session of speed reading.
Earlier tonight, I read two chapters from “My Life in My Words”. In it, Tagore’s poem “Where The Mind is Without Fear” was printed alongside its original title in Bengali “Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo”. It struck me that I’d heard these words several times in the song “Jagao Mera Des”, without knowing its meaning. I spent the next hour carefully listening to that song by A.R.Rahman. It starts with the original poem, as written in Bengali and then a Hindi interpretation follows. I memorized some lines in Bengali just because they sounded beautiful.
Although I could have read two more chapters of the book in that time, I am certain that the joy of reading the book is not derived from the target of finishing it, but from the experiences along the way.