Saturday, April 17, 2010

Slowing down as an immersive experience

Through my entire time as a student, I never used Cliffs Notes or SparkNotes in place of assigned reading. I made it a point to read every book I was supposed to, down to the last word.

The trouble for me was that everyone else who resorted to these "study guides" knew enough about the real books to do well in their classes. From the perspective of efficiently using my time to reach the objective of a good-enough, basic understanding for writing essays, discussing the books in class, and impressing teachers, I lost out.

I remember one book in particular. Crime and Punishment really broke a lot of people, many of whom were like me and had, up until then, insisted on reading the book and not the summary booklet. But I was determined. I was hellbent on savoring that book and milking it for all it was worth — calculus, biology, and economics be damned.

As expected, I ended up with the same general recollection of the book's contents as the more reasonable folks who resorted to the Cliffs Notes.

But what I remember most poignantly is the feeling I had while reading that book. I became immersed in it to the point that I'd feel the cold sweat, delirium, and ever-present sense of dread that hounded Raskolnikov (the protagonist in the story) as he ran from the authorities and lived each day with the burden of his guilt.

I highly doubt that it was even possible for anyone who read the Cliffs Notes to experience that.

Whenever I approach any new text, it's in pursuit of that kind of total immersion. I know that I'm not going to remember every detail of what I read, but my ultimate takeaway from all the things I read is not the knowledge to be gleaned, as if I were some kind of one-man strip mining operation for facts. It's in putting myself in a position to be shaped and influenced; I want to see how the mind of another person works by temporarily forcing my mind into the mold of their thought process.

In order to do this, it's absolutely necessary to slow down.

Slowing down allows real life to happen, as events inject themselves into my reading experience. If I take a long enough and serious enough text and stew over it, its applicability quickly becomes apparent when I frame its ideas in the context of whatever I happen to be dealing with in my life.

On the flip side, the shortcomings of a text also make themselves apparent when I slow down and let life happen in between. The opportunity afforded by this perfect setup allows me to weed out and carefully qualify newfangled notions, because when it comes to novel and interesting ideas, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt and adopt them a little too eagerly. A tempering influence helps, and a tempering influence provided by direct observation is the best that anyone could ask for.

Slow down to savor the richness of a text, and make time for ideas to run up against real situations. That way, you'll get to see how valid these ideas really are.