Speed Reading for Dummies

Charles had been visiting the Scott County Jail every Saturday for two years. He taught a variety of courses to the inmates, from elementary science to creative writing and U.S. history. For the last fifteen years he had spent five days a week teaching world history to unruly seventh and eighth graders, and he sometimes wondered why he chose to spend his Saturdays at the jail. He wondered when no one showed up, when someone cursed at him, and when the one inmate charged at him (following Charles’s suggestion that the inmate work on his handwriting instead of playing so much handball).

The jail classroom was a mostly peaceful place, but since the incident, the warden had paired each inmate with a guard, making for a new dynamic in the small room. Suddenly there were a dozen men in the cramped space, the guards shuffling in the narrow periphery between wall and table, unsure of how to occupy themselves. They politely declined Charles’s invitation to participate, instead leaning against the walls with their arms crossed, listening to class lectures and discussions, becoming more relaxed each week.

Of all the courses offered, Charles especially enjoyed teaching creative writing but had noticed the absence of one inmate who attended every other class. One Saturday after a lesson focusing on the Civil War he asked Lyle--a polite, attentive young man--if he’d have any interest in speed reading. Lyle looked surprised, but said that he’d come if Charles taught the class.

The next Saturday Lyle walked into the narrow room and sat across from Charles at the long metal table. Charles had noticed the young man when Lyle had first arrived at the jail seven or eight months before, had studied the relaxed posture of his strong, slender frame. He looked like someone who would probably always be a great athlete, despite thinning so much during his sentence. His long greasy hair made Charles think that he would have looked like a Jesus-wannabe hippie if it weren’t for the orange jumpsuit. But it was Lyle’s calm expression that struck Charles the most—he looked kind and gentle, and there was an openness in his eyes, one that Charles felt he didn’t often see, in or outside of the jail.

A group of four guards soon followed, walking into the room talking. They didn’t notice the unusual silence, Lyle and Charles watching them. They were all abuzz of some excitement, and suddenly stopped all together. One of the guards nodded at Lyle and then said to Charles, “Small group. You alright today?”

“Yes, I think so. Thanks.” And the guards resumed their conversation as they moved out of the room, leaving the metal door open behind them.

While the guards had been talking, Lyle had set two books on the table: Daniel Silva’s Portrait of a Spy and a fat physics text.

“One of those speed reads by itself, you know. The other one—well, I don’t think is meant to be sped through,” Charles said, leaning forward on the table and clasping his hands.

Lyle sat back, relaxed into his chair. “I know. I just wanted to show you what I’ve been reading.”

“Good. Why two such different things?”

Lyle looked down at the books as if considering the distinction, but not too seriously.

“I just enjoy them both,” he shrugged. “I studied art in college, so I like these mysteries that integrate art history, but I’ve also always loved mathematics and physics. I have a brain for both, I guess.”

Charles sat looking at Lyle for a moment. He felt a surprise that he hoped wasn’t apparent on his face. He reached across the table, pushed the fat mystery aside and picked up the physics book. Flipping through it he caught glimpses of equations on most every page, graphs and tables full of numbers and symbols, and black-and-white photos of experiments from the 1950s.

“This place needs to update their library.” He set the book down and pushed it back across the table. “Why are you here Lyle?”

“To learn speed reading. I’m so bored here, so it’s just nice to learn something new. And after you mentioned it, I realized that I don’t always fully pay attention to what I’m reading—my mind wanders, you know? There are so many distractions here—people yelling, sounds echoing everywhere, heavy doors slamming—but it seems like if I’m speed reading my attention will be more focused.”

As the teacher of a subject, this was what Charles wanted to hear. But as a man sitting across the table this was not the question he had asked.

Sitting back again, Charles crossed his arms, strangely aware of how unanimated Lyle’s conversation was. The young man was speaking gently and deliberately, at what struck Charles as the perfect level for the echoey room.

Charles took a breath and dropped his hands to his lap.

“Well, I think speed reading can help with focus, but that’s not what I meant. Why are you in jail? You’re educated, polite, thoughtful. I usually don’t ask that of my students, but I’m really curious about you.”

Lyle smiled, and nodded. “Yeah, I don’t seem crazy, right? Well, I’m not in here. It’s out there where I have problems. In here I can just read and draw.”

“And not deal with the pressures of ‘life beyond the walls’?” Charles asked, smiling and air quoting the phrase.

“Exactly. They keep telling me I’m an alcoholic, but I think it’s just that I don’t like it out there.”

Charles was surprised at the serious tone, and had the thought that he shouldn’t be pushing his luck, but Lyle seemed perfectly comfortable with the conversation. Both men were now leaning back in their chairs, appearing perfectly relaxed as if they were sitting at a streetside café some morning sharing coffee and cigarettes.

“But not enough to kill yourself?”

“Well, no. That’s always an option, but it isn’t a very good one.”

“Neither is being in here.”

“I know,” said Lyle. “But I don’t have to worry about much here. No job, no bills, no people nagging you about your problems. Here you’re just surrounded by other people who couldn’t deal with it either.” Lyle looked around as he said this, as if gazing at the others he spoke of.

“So, it’s better in here?”

“Not better,” said Lyle, “Just easier. Somedays. I’ve been in and out of here four times, same stupid crime, which makes you start to feel pretty dumb. And after a few months I’m always eager to get out and start my life over. So that’s where I am now--over the regret, but stuck in that place between boredom and restlessness.”

“Sounds fair enough,” said Charles. “So why learn speed reading?”

“Why did you learn it?”

The question caught Charles off guard in its simplicity; but even in his flat tone Lyle sounded curious.

“Because I do a lot of reading, and like you I wanted to still absorb as much information as I could while speeding up the process.”

“Exactly,” said Lyle, his voice becoming more excited. “I want to read every book in here during the next four months. That’s what’ll get me through this. I don’t know if it’ll make me any smarter or anything, but it’s a goal to set, and my counselor tells me that will help me ‘beyond the walls’.”

Charles smiled and nodded. He leaned down and took a stack of papers and a slim book from his bag, then placed the materials on the table and looked at Lyle. “So let’s get to it.”