Against Evelyn Wood


(I have never read particularly fast, but maybe that’s not such an awful thing: I do find when I read more slowly my comprehension and memory for what I’ve read is much better).

Which brings to mind an old favorite story, R.A. Lafferty’s “The Primary Education of the Camiroi.” The text is not available online,1 and I’m too lazy to transcribe the relevant passages, so I’ll link instead to Alan Jacobs:

I recommend a story by one of the all-time great weirdos of American literature, R. A. Lafferty. The story is called “Primary Education of the Camiroi,” and it concerns a PTA delegation from Dubuque who visit another planet to investigate their educational methods. After one little boy crashes into a member of the delegation, knocking her down and breaking her glasses, and then immediately grinds new lenses for her and repairs the spectacles — a disconcerting experience for the Iowans — they interview one girl and ask her how fast she reads. She replies that she reads 120 words per minute. One of the Iowans proudly comments that she knows students of the same age in Dubuque who read five hundred words per minute.

“When I began disciplined reading, I was reading at a rate of four thousand words a minute,” the girl said. They had quite a time correcting me of it. I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I’ve learned to read almost slow enough.”

Slow enough, that is, to remember verbatim everything she has read. “We on Camiroi,” one of the adults says, “are only a little more intelligent than you on Earth. We cannot afford to waste time on forgetting or reviewing, or pursuing anything of a shallowness that lends itself to scanning.”

So maybe what matters most is not how many books we read, but how thoroughly we read them.

The delegation’s ultimate recommendations for Dubuque schools include “b.) A little constructive book-burning, particularly in the education field. c.) Judicious hanging of certain malingering students.”

The story is in Nine Hundred Grandmothers. (If you find the book at a reasonable price (good luck) and are new to Lafferty, I suggest starting with the last story and working your way to the front of the book. The first few stories are not the Lafferty I like best.)


  1. Legally, anyway

2 thoughts on “Against Evelyn Wood”

  1. I haven’t read near enough Lafferty.

    Had a professor at St. John’s College who made the same point: that, when younger, he’d read books very quickly, but as he got older, he read and reread books more and more slowly, and got more out of it.

    This did not stop the school from assigning 50 pages of Aristotle or 500 pages of Tolstoy to be read for one seminar, so I guess this professor’s insight was not institutional.

  2. One other thing: Not sure the story is not apocryphal, but it was part of the standard lore of St. John’s: A young salesman from some speed reading program came to campus to peddle. He made grand claims about how this speed reading program could help the Johnnies with their studies and grades, and challenged the students to give him a book to read and he’d come back the next day and they’d discuss it. Some wiseacre handed him Aristotle’s Metaphysics. He didn’t come back. (No report of the fate of the lent book made it to me.)

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