What speed reading has taught me about taking my time | Adrian Chiles

I wish I could whip through books, but slow reading can be good too. Try reading The Wind in the Willows at a snail’s pace to appreciate its mystery and beauty

I had an idea to do something about speed reading on my radio show. It wasn’t the first of my ideas not to come off; ironically, we didn’t have enough time to do it justice. It needed more than the suggestion of a few tips in a few minutes. And then we started getting texts asking why we were bothering in the first place. What’s so bad about reading nice and slowly? Duly dispirited, I moved on to the next item.

But what bothers me is that I was never again taught reading skills once I was into my teens. This may have changed, but some guidance on how to read stuff faster would really have helped me. Especially when I went to university to study English literature. I’d had two whole years to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for A-level, which seemed about right to me. Suddenly I had half a dozen Hardy novels to get through in a month. Nobody ever taught me how to do that. And now there is so much I want to read all around me, physically and digitally, that it feels like an endless losing battle. I appreciate it is never going to be possible to plant a flag at the summit of this mountain of words, but it would be nice to feel I could at least get to base camp.

In language learning, the opposite applies. Slowness is of the essence. Attempting to scale another apparently unclimbable mountain, I’m trying to get to grips properly with my mum’s language with the help of a teacher. Looking around for a children’s book to try to translate into Croatian, I found a hardback copy of The Wind in the Willows that my Croatian grandmother gave me for my 10th birthday in 1977. I got off to poor start; I ran into trouble as early as the second word. “Mole?” queried the teacher, when I showed her my homework. “Like on your skin?” And so it is that I now know the Croatian words for both kinds of mole.

I also learned from this exercise the benefits of intensely slow reading and just what insight you get into the richness of language in trying to translate it. I’d picked a tricky one here. The length of Kenneth Grahame’s sentences would furrow Henry James’s brow.

The first one is 15 words long; the second, incredibly, runs to 46 words. And consider this, the third sentence: “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.” Trying to translate just this one sentence led to a good quarter of an hour’s discussion with my teacher. How is spring “moving” in the air exactly? Finally, we had to settle for it merely being “felt” in the air, which seems inadequate. And as for spring’s “spirit of divine discontent and longing” the translation was less of a problem than the sentiment. “I’ve always thought of spring as being nice and positive,” said Linda my teacher, a little plaintively.

What on earth did I make of all this at the age of 10? Did I even consider the deeper meanings, or just gambol on through, seeking out the story? I also had a bit of a my-how-the-world’s-dumbed-down moment. Surely writing of this complexity wouldn’t be published for children now. I emailed my friend, the wonderful writer for children Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who said this was probably true, but also pointed out that we need to bear in mind Grahame was probably writing with quite a narrow, well-educated junior audience in mind. I think, like Frank, that drawing from a simpler lexical set when writing for children is important; accessibility is vital. Yet, at the same time, we marvel at the beauty and mystery of the language; a little bewilderment here and there is no bad thing.

All of which I would have missed if I’d chosen The Wind in the Willows for speed-reading practice, rather than language-learning. It’s going to be quite a journey. It has taken three days to translate the first page. This puts me on course to get it finished by Christmas 2023.

• Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist

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Adrian Chiles

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