Reader

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If I were forced to choose one single identity, it might well be that of reader.

When I was young, I read voraciously. I recall stacks of books from the library, the Oz books, Hardy boys, Nancy Drew, biographies, anything, everything. I excelled in my school’s summer reading programs.

My parents were readers, one wall of our living room was a big built-in library, but all I really remember is the shelf of Readers Digest Condensed Books. My grandfather subscribed me to Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club, and the day the new book was delivered was the very best day of the month. I’d tear open the package and devour the book, then often immediately reread it.

Forced to attend summer school every summer,  I was enrolled in a Power Reading program. I remember being required to read a color-coded text, then answer questions, before moving on to a “higher” color. A waste of time. I hated it, while the other kids were out playing. My grandfather also ordered a subscription to Readers Digest just so that I could study “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.” Maybe it worked: as a teenager I loved living inside long  novels, the bigger the better: Michener’s Hawaii and The Source, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago...

When required to write book reviews in school, I was never quite confident about my opinion. So I turned to Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. Reading professional reviews culled from those thick green volumes helped me solidify my evaluation of the book in question. I don’t think I plagiarized as much as allowed myself to be inspired.  Ironic that I eventually became a professional book reviewer, publishing my reviews in a variety of venues, even winning an award from Library Journal.

Our family played Scrabble, and it took me a long time to realize that trotting out my 25-cent words wasn’t necessarily an advantage. Shorter, more boring words played strategically would earn more points. I may have worked crossword puzzles, but I don’t have strong memories of that,  I was quickly bored.

What I do remember, vividly, is Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics. I don’t know when (or why) my parents thought it would be a good idea to enroll me in this course. I didn’t like it at all. I was already a fast reader, and resented the techniques being taught. It, almost, turned me away from my love of literature. I vaguely recall repeatedly being driven to the classroom of an evening. I don’t remember how many times I had to attend. As soon as the course was over, I reverted to my previous habit and made snarky quips about the course for years.

Killing time yesterday at a public library, I serendipitously discovered a new book: Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked by Marcia Biederman. To quote the product description:

The best-known educator of the twentieth century was a scammer in cashmere. “The most famous reading teacher in the world,” as television hosts introduced her, Evelyn Wood had little classroom experience, no degrees in reading instruction, and a background that included work at the Mormon mission in Germany at the time when the church was cooperating with the Third Reich. Nevertheless, a nation spooked by Sputnik and panicked by paperwork eagerly embraced her promises of a speed-reading revolution. Journalists, lawmakers and two US presidents lent credibility to Wood’s claims of turbocharging reading speeds through a method once compared to the miracle at Lourdes. Time magazine reported Woods grads could polish off Dr. Zhivago in one hour; a senator swore that Wood’s method had boosted his reading speed to more than ten thousand words per minute. But science showed that her method taught only skimming, with disastrous effects on comprehension–a fact Wood was aware of from early in her career. Fudging test results, and squelching critics, she founded a company that enrolled one million. The course’s popularity endured even as evidence of its shortcomings continued to accumulate. Today, as apps and online courses attempt to spark a speed-reading revival, this engaging look at Wood’s rise from mission worker to marketer exposes the pitfalls of embracing a con artist’s worthless solution to imaginary problems.

How validating, vindicating, that this miserable technique was a scam. I am amazed and appalled that Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics videos and books remain on the market (“works like magic”). It is shocking really. Apparently it’s true that “There’s a sucker born every minute,” as attributed to P.T. Barnum. What is it about that post-war period that inspired such self-deception? On one hand, even though I was one of her dupes, I’m impressed that the little lady was able to pull the dust jacket over everyone’s eyes.

But now I have to go read another book.

COVID Coping

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I am fascinated by how we’re all coping so differently with this unprecedented situation. Some folks are listening to politicians, physicians, pundits, journalists, and any/everyone else putting forth predictions. I can’t count the friends who have confessed that they’re “watching way too much news.” On the other hand, I am, as usual, the ostrich with its head in the sand, or up its butt, as the case may be. I have not listened to one word of verbiage, broadcast, streaming, or other forms masquerading as “news”. I monitor my reading intake, starting with the New York Times’s daily “California Today” feed, and clicking only on carefully selected links. I may well be missing important developments, but I’m also not spiraling into the pits of depression and panic by exposing myself to articles which do little more than fan the flames of fear. I do my morning meditation, read books (mostly historical nonfiction) and watch Netflix documentaries and movies of an evening. I’m snacking too much, sleeping a lot and not exercising enough. I’m unfocused, frequently discombobulated, and my flat is in untold disarray.  I am grateful for my privileged situation and grieving for the many losses of others. I’m inspired by the examples of thoughtfulness and generosity (one example: my in-laws are busily making masks for postal workers) and appalled by the hoarding, price gouging, and insider trading exhibited by others. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people behave admirably or abominably in a crisis.

Some of my octogenarian friends are refusing to leave their living spaces for any reason at all. Others, in the same age bracket, are running what to me seem like non-essential errands, zipping around for the sake of getting out and about. I am fortunate to have a large flat and a lovely garden, so it’s easy to stick close to home, except for a weekly walk with a friend who lives a few blocks away (keeping six feet apart at all times, of course). My partner is sequestered separately across town, so we talk and text frequently through the day, but our time together has been limited to the romance of… grocery shopping. When I magnanimously offered to “kidnap” another nearby friend to stave off cabin fever, she declined, saying that she was in her 70s, asthmatic, and a caregiver, and didn’t want to take any risks.

Having co-hosted a Death Café for nearly five years, I was wary of attempting a virtual version in this new environment. While I have learned that people are starving for a safe place to share fears, beliefs, and resources around the stigmatized topic, I didn’t know what to expect. I needn’t have been apprehensive; my very first experience using Zoom was remarkably successful. I was anticipating that it might devolve into a COVID Café, and though the pandemic was a topic of conversation, the discussion amongst the 15 of us was balanced and respectful.  One unexpected advantage was that attendees didn’t need to be geographically proximate; one participant was in Santa Barbara, one in Sausalito, and the remainder of us in between.

I continue to volunteer for a national organization committed to supporting people exploring their end-of-life options. I talk to people throughout the Southwest who are terrified of going to the hospital, being placed on a ventilator, having CPR performed, or risking other invasive procedures. Many live alone and/or in what one caller described as her “rinky-dink town.” Now that travel is curtailed, the difficult decision was made to temporarily stop accepting new applications, leaving people one less option. I commiserate with each person’s unique predicament. I can recommend online resources for self-deliverance, but can’t offer the expertise and experience of our Exit Guides. I explain the pros and cons of Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking and discuss the challenges of identifying a hospice that might support such a plan. The irony is not lost on me that while most of the world is desperately seeking solutions to staying alive, I’m supporting others’ desire to hasten their own death. My brother is a palliative care physician in Tacoma and his son, my nephew, reports, “The COVID death now thought to be first in the nation occurred at Harborview Medical Center [in Seattle] where I was working at that time.”

Perhaps the worst part of all this is not knowing how long this situation will continue. Will it be weeks or months? And what will the world look like when we (some of us) are able to return to it? Only time will tell. Until then, I find solace in watching the birds soar across the sky, the clouds change color and shape, trees shimmy in the breeze. We can only take this moment by moment, one day at a time.

A slogan developed over eighty years ago, in response to another world crisis is still, or again, apt: “Keep calm and carry on.”