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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: Making Reading Fast

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Whenever I read critical works in the past, I used to be a fastidious note-taker, making chapter-by-chapter synopses as I read, creating abstracts, copying out key quotations, all neatly word-processed and filed. This form of "active" reading worked for me, as I found I could concentrate better on what were often quite challenging, and sometimes dull, secondary texts; secondly, finding precisely where that quote I later needed came from was simply a matter of using the search facility on my PC.

Such a form of reading is no doubt the best when, as is the case for undergraduate essays, you might only need to read a couple of texts which, your lecturer has assured you, will shed the most light on the topic in question. When it comes to a PhD, however, the reading list is infinite (or at least exponential) as every book you read points to several other potentially vital texts in its bibliography. Six months in, and my reading list is already 100 books and articles long. Perhaps the biggest challenge for me has been to learn to break away from my careful plotting of a critical book through detailed note taking, and instead to learn to read in a more laid back way, unconcerned if parts of chapters skip my comprehension, just so long as the general thesis of the book becomes clear. With such an expansive reading list, to carry out the sort of note taking I used to would be impossible, and occasionally this leads to frustration, as I try to access the database of my flawed memory, rather than my computer's perfect memory, in order to recollect where an argument or quote I suddenly, a month of writing later, I realise I would like to inject into my argument. There is thus a delicate balance to be found between reading fast, and making reading fast, making it stick in your mind by commentating actively on it as you read.

The speed reading workshop I attended today threatened to upset any balance between the two I had found. Promising to treble my initial, average to high reading speed (450 words per minute), I worried whether it might also result in reducing to a third my ability to comprehend difficult texts. However, though I am always cynical about these skills workshops that promise much and often deliver little, the reading tools we were taught were practical, the effects immediate, and the threat to comprehension not particularly great. In fact, the most simple thing we were told was to go back to primary school, and pick up again that pen or finger your teacher told you to put down if you wanted to be a good reader, and to trace every word with it. This allows the eyes, rather than saccading in leaps across the line, to smoothly flow across every word or every chunk of words (the next exercise in speed reading being to comprehend phrases, rather than words, at a time). The net bonus was two-fold: firstly, my speed doubled to about 800 words a minute; secondly, because I was engaging more of my brain in the exercise of reading, I was less distracted by events around me, my attention wandered less, and my comprehension (though obviously difficult to measure in a workshop environment) went up. If only I had been taught these tricks five years ago!

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Posted by Alistair at 4:44 pm

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