Through the World of Words

There is reading, and there is reading. The wide-awake, bright and bushy reading you do sitting at a desk, maybe even with a pen at the ready, is not at all the same (not a tawl, not a tawl, as the Irish would say) as the midnight propped-up-on-one-elbow, one-eye-half-shut reading.

How rare is the reading in between these two--a fire in the grate, a book in hand, legs stretched out on the sofa--ah, a good two-hour read ahead. (If it's 11 o'clock at night it may even stretch out to four hours.) Oh, those long lost days of childhood when, reading, you went into another world, oblivious to the one you were in. And even earlier than that, before you could read, when you wandered wordless, happily lost in a country of pictures.

There is, of course, non-mental mental health reading, that is, the no-brain automatic reading--the backs and bottoms of boxes ("Kleenex Softique adds special softness fibers and then fluffs them up for extra special softness"), those essential instructions ("Coat and Hat Hooks: easy screw-in installation; smooth protective coating safeguards your garment; solve your storage problems"), labels on towels, all the laudatory quotes on the back covers of paperback books we're buying anyway no matter what they say ("Rivals Agatha Christie's technique" when Ruth Rendell writes rings around Christie already), the grocery store signs: Juicy red tomatoes (well, they're not going to say dry, pink tomatoes).

Then there's speed reading--even those of us who've never had speed reading do it--leap, leap, leap from paragraph to paragraph, picking up words that evaporate the instant they hit the brain. This evaporation syndrome is particularly evident in the reading of the comic pages. How carefully, appreciatively you peruse every day every one, each comic strip read as though it revealed sparkling gems of world thought, and yet, five minutes later, you cannot remember the story line of a single one; it is as if you had never read them at all (a tawl, a tawl).

Some reading is strictly for mental health, distraction reading while you wait in doctors' offices--Time, Newsweek, the National Geographic, Arizona Highways (my dentist's), Reader's Digest and yes, when desperate, even Sports Illustrated.

When in medical waiting rooms your reading undergoes a curious transformation. Antennae unused elsewhere awake, alerting you to the imminent danger that your name will be called before you reach the end of the article. Faster, faster, faster you go, gulping phrases, swallowing paragraphs whole, hurtling down columns, pursued by the possibility that the nurse that waits for no man will open that door of no return. That race through the rapids of words takes on the dimensions of delirium, overshadowed by a sudden black cloud of conviction that never again, never again in this life (which even in its wordless aspects tumbles onward in such a relentless waterfall), never again will you be able to find the priceless information revealed in these pages.

Inevitably you are torn doctor-ward to a cubicle (clinically bare with barely a chintzy-sized tissue box to read). There you are, ripped out from the very tide of living, cast out from the printed flow, the word cataracts that, like oxygen, are the essence of existence.

Oh, wait a minute--here's a chart on the wall, the structure of the eye with lots of little Latin words in six-point type. Ah, chance has thrown out a literary life line after all.

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