We talk about getting lost in a book. When we say this, however, there is no fear. No frustration about the lack of a clear path toward the end of a maze. We know that getting lost is the goal.
I'm old enough to remember television commercials for the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading course. Lying on the floor in our basement, somewhere between "Creature Features" and "Dark Shadows," I would see an open book on the screen and someone's fingers tracing the lines at supersonic speed.
As someone who already loved reading, I looked at speed as if it were a promise from heaven. A way to consume libraries. All those stories of rocket ships and sailboats in a week. Then more! I didn't know anything about the Evelyn Wood method, but to a kid it seemed a way to encompass infinity. For whatever reason, though, I never did ask to join.
Of course, many years later, I have a different impression. The ability to scan a text quickly is wonderful, if your goal is utilitarian. But that's not what reading is.
Reading is internal, a process of spirt and psychology more than aesthetics, and perhaps because of this, reading allows one type of communion that no other art form allows. It allows a pause, in process, for contemplation and sustained emotion.
We all know the feeling. We're reading along and we get to a moment, the end of a sentence or paragraph, and we pause. Perhaps it's the last chapter of "Ulysses." Maybe it's realizing who Antoinette Cosway Mason Rochester becomes in "Wide Sargasso Sea." Maybe it's trying to get our head around "The Things They Carried."
We look up and away from the book. Perhaps we gaze at the ceiling; perhaps we gaze out the window. Our gaze has no object. We are looking inward, exploring emotion or intellect or the sweet combination of the two.
In this moment, reading has not stopped. Unlike music, where the symphony continues, and unlike film or dance or theater, where the narrative proceeds independently of our perception of it, reading gives us the space to think and feel in a sustained moment of otherness. We hold that moment in the mind as long as we can.
Reading is intimate. Perhaps it is the most intimate art form in that every bit of it exists internally. Other than an elegantly designed font or page or binding, there is no external object to literature. Because reading is internal, what we are really doing is exploring our own ability for empathy.
I will admit, I can read very fast, and that is often useful. It limits the pain of an institutional memo and quickly confirms my mistakes with an instruction manual. However, more often than not, I choose not to. I have made a career of reading slowly and pausing often. As a writer I have labored over sentences that I hope will be appreciated. As a reader, I understand that the sentence, the paragraph, the page, are all there to bring to light something in myself I had not known before, or at least had not known in detail.
When I pause and look up toward the ceiling or out the window, at either alpenglow or blizzard, I am still very much in the process of reading. An elegant space has opened for contemplation and exploration. In that moment, that time spent lingering around an idea, we approach the universe beyond what we already imagine.
W. Scott Olsen is a writer and professor in Moorhead, Minn.