15 September 2010

How to quickly read a thick novel by Joyce or Tolstoy

There are many speed reading techniques, but most are notoriously inadequate for dealing with challenging material. Two of the most daunting works for literature students are War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, and Ulysses, by James Joyce. I have a method for each which worked for me. These methods may be applied to other challenging works.

I. The Tolstoy method.

The trick to getting through War and Peace as quickly as possible is to recognize that the minor characters, like Denisov and Dolohov, do not need to be attended to at all in the first pass. There are dozens of these characters. They have names which are unfamiliar to English and American people. If you try and keep track of them all you can get bogged down deep. There are only five characters you have to pay close attention to: Natasha Rostov, Pierre Bezuhov, Andre Bolkonsky, Nikolai Rostov, and Maria Bolkonsky. When the action involves one of these five, read close. When the action moves elsewhere, skim.

Also there are two long passages in the book you can skip entirely. The passage in the middle of the book between Natasha's betrayal and Napoleon's invasion of Russia is long and of little importance to most readers. The epilogue is the same. Although these are of little importance to most readers, that does not mean they were not important to Tolstoy. They clearly were.

After you get through the book with this negligence, you may decide to revisit the book and investigate the parts you missed. This is well worth doing. I have read War and Peace so many times that I have lost count of the exact number. I love this book. Denisov and Dolohov are both marvelously drawn characters. The action after Natasha's betrayal is essential to appreciate that she is rooted in the earth of the steppes, in spite of her family's royalty. It is all great stuff, but many readers find it much too much to swallow it all in one gulp.

II. The Joyce method.

The key to getting through Joyce with no experience is to view him as a cross between a novelist and a bard. He was trained on poetry, poetry which was meant to be read aloud. His sentences which twist your mind inside out when read silently have a completely different effect on you when they enter through your eardrums. The sound of his sentences can be delightful, and this is still true even when you are not entirely clear exactly what you just heard. On Bloomsday in Dublin they read the book out loud for hours in packed rooms.

So to get through Ulysses fast, open to page one and start reading aloud. When your voice tires, read silently. You will make faster progress than if you had started reading silently on page one. You will not get far. Put the book down. The next day pick it up where you left off and start reading aloud. When your voice tires, read silent. Alternate. After about ten or twenty cycles, you should be able to read the book nearly as efficiently as any other book. His style takes getting used to. I have also used this method successfully with Finnegans Wake, which many people have described to me as completely unreadable. I like Ulysses, but I do not love it. I am almost indifferent whether to keep my copy. I will read War and Peace again and again.

(Yes I know that is Natasha Rostova and Maria Bolkonskaya.)

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.