Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 12, 2009

learning from the Camiroi

In related news, Megan McArdle worries that she’s not reading enough books, or, to put it more specifically, that she doesn't read fast enough to read as many books as she’s like to read.

To Megan and to all others who have similar concerns I recommend a story by one of the all-time great weirdos of American literature, R. A. Lafferty. The story is called “Primary Education of the Camiroi,” and it concerns a PTA delegation from Dubuque who visit another planet to investigate their educational methods. After one little boy crashes into a member of the delegation, knocking her down and breaking her glasses, and then immediately grinds new lenses for her and repairs the spectacles — a disconcerting experience for the Iowans — they interview one girl and ask her how fast she reads. She replies that she reads 120 words per minute. One of the Iowans proudly comments that she knows students of the same age in Dubuque who read five hundred words per minute.

“When I began disciplined reading, I was reading at a rate of four thousand words a minute,” the girl said. They had quite a time correcting me of it. I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I’ve learned to read almost slow enough.”

Slow enough, that is, to remember verbatim everything she has read. “We on Camiroi,” one of the adults says, “are only a little more intelligent than you on Earth. We cannot afford to waste time on forgetting or reviewing, or pursuing anything of a shallowness that lends itself to scanning.”

So maybe what matters most is not how many books we read, but how thoroughly we read them. Just something to think about.

(P.S. The Camiroi deal with recalcitrant children by placing them in a pit, without food or water, until they learn their lessons. They deal with extreme cases by hanging. Not that I’m making any recommendations.)