It's shameful, really. I figure something besides one too many margaritas and a mild case of sunstroke must be wrong with me if I can't finish the perfectly charming tales of one of my all-time favourite authors on a week-long holiday. Are my eyes just getting lazy or is early onset senility slowing my ability to translate letters into words? After decades of ignoring infomercials on the topic, the prospect of tripling my reading speed is speaking to me. One e-mail from the Learning Annex entitled Learn From The World's Fastest Reader! and I'm signing up for the all-day weekend session.
My teacher is Howard Berg, a 50-something Brooklynite who looks more like one of Tony Soprano's cousins than a guy listed in the 1990 Guinness Book Of World Records for reading more than 25,000 words a minute.
After a couple of tips on "successful learning," he says we need to prime our brains, invigorating the left and right lobe connection by doing a little romper-room exercising. We tap our shoulders, touch our knees and throw our hands up in the air, shouting, "I feel great!" like we're in an old Toyota ad, before yanking our arm down with a victorious "Yes!" After three or four rounds of that, at least I'm awake - a major victory at 9:30 in the morning on a Saturday. I picture myself doing this at the office every time I need a pick-me-up. Not sure how it would go over.
I sit through a few hours of tips on speed essay-writing, speed note-taking and speed math before I think maybe I should have only signed up for the afternoon reading section. I'm in Speed Learning. Shit. This is bound to trigger old school nightmares.
I do find out a nifty tidbit on unclogging writer's block by darting my eyes toward my right ear, where a little voice - my imagination, apparently - resides. If that fails, try the left, says our guru. Hmm. I thought the right lobe was always the creative side. Maybe neurologists have it wrong.
Finally, after lunch, we get to the reason why I assume the small hotel conference room at the Holiday Inn on King West has filled up. Most of us, we're promised, will read 100 per cent faster in just four hours.
But first, out comes the stopwatch to assess how slowly we read now.
Oh god, why do I panic when I'm being timed? The page blurs, and I stop to reread a few sentences in case we're tested for comprehension. I score 260 words a minute. That can't be good. I hide the score under my hand - even though I find out later it's average.
Berg tells us we've got to let go of the little narrator in our head who reads along with us. It's holding us back, bottlenecking us. No narrator can speak the 25,000 words a minute Berg can read, unless he's an auctioneer.
Then the warm-up begins. We start rubbing the pages of Berg's $10 speed-reading book with rapid, sweeping S gestures. Swish, swish, turn. Swish, swish, turn. We'll be lost if we don't get our page-turning technique down pat early. We practise the S-rub over two lines, then four, then whole paragraphs and pages, just to get our hands used to the motions of a winner.
"Really fast, like you're cleaning," shouts Berg. I feel like Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. I'm sure "wax on, wax off" could be incorporated in here somehow.
He asks if we noticed the part in the book about some guy called Bob Clark. Um, no. Were we supposed to be attempting to read a whole page per beat of "one-one thousand, two-one thousand"? Because I was just flicking my wrists around.
But the real drills haven't even begun. This time we're actually trying to follow the words on the page, first at our normal rate for 60 seconds, then at double the speed, then at triple speed, trying to push through the brain fuzz barrier and force our minds to catch up to our fingers. By the fifth round of drills, my wrists are starting to seize up and my head is spinning. I feel like Rocky punching through the pain, but with ink-stains on my fingers instead of blood.
Nauseous and ready to throw in the towel, we're told to give it one more try at a normal, comfortable pace. As promised, I clock in at well over twice my initial rate. I'm beaming from ear to ear until I look over at my neighbours' scores and notice I was creamed. Ah, well, I'm sure it's nothing that can't be improved if I spend over $300 on the speed reading DVDs Berg's been pushing all day.
If we wield our newfound powers strategically, we're told, we could get through boring reports in half the time, power-skim tables of contents to ensure we're even checking out the right book from the library and blast through magazines by going straight for any graphs and subtext. Wait - couldn't I do that before? But I digress.
Berg hammers home his theme of saving precious time, like his star pupils who, he tells us repeatedly, whizzed through high school credits in weeks and graduated college in two years instead of four.
I'm more appalled than impressed. When's the last time these kids stopped to smell the hostels across Europe or slowed to enjoy a day of playing hooky? I admit I hustled to finish high school two years early, but I didn't do it to get into university ahead of schedule. Rather, I bummed around Peru with a tent after waitressing to save up the cash.
Later, I curl up with my never-ending novel to see how I measure up, and my eyes trail just as slowly as before.
My epiphany? I realize I like hearing the characters speak in the cadences the author intended. I love relaxing into the drawn-out rhythm of a hot Colombian afternoon. I'd rather not plow through 15 pages of Marquez a minute. And if I did, I might be able to pass a test on the novel but I couldn't say I enjoyed it.