Vacuuming up Information with the Eyes

The Free Library of Philadelphia has considerable holdings. I have found these often supplement the WTS library, but have not availed myself of the full range. To avail yourself of the full range you have to use books only in the central library downtown, you see.

Well, I bit the bullet on some stuff on George MacDonald. The semester is pressing on me. After dropping the birthday girl off, I wended my way downtown on a relatively clear set of backroads. Nice day, too: foggy in the morning, cool weather, things budding, grass green.

Here was what faced me once there: I had eight books to look at, six in Literature, and one each in two other departments. I could have had them keep the books for me to return to on Friday, say, but the idea was to get through them as quickly as possible. Then, I saw the places to plug in a computer were all taken up by bums recharging their sophisticated electronics. I have a decent low-end computer; four hours is what you can count on. I was going to read and type, but the power situation did not, as you will understand, lend itself. Not a big one for running it low and then being in the middle of something out of juice. I would have to read with stickies, and then type. And I would have to recycle the stickies on the next book—the stack was half gone.

Now I am a humane reader. I do not believe in so-called speed reading: that it accomplishes much or that I practice it. Nor am I one to smile on short-cuts. I have my principles and my ingrained legalism. But I was faced with a task of some urgency, this morning, and under the pressure of it all I discovered high gear. I read like a selective vacuum, sucking the information out of those books as I have never done before. Before lunch I’d stickied and then typed my way through four of the slenderer volumes (secondary literature). Had I not been in that circumstance I would have counted it good work to have done just one.

The key is to do it with secondary literature. Scan all the pages, stop and read what you need. Get the introduction, look at the chapter titles, use the indexes to swing among things like Tarzan, etc. I was elated by the time lunch came around because I had done more work than I expected.

Good work requires some good rest in order to be prolonged. One must be acute to work acutely. So I walked to the Reading Terminal Market, had two allbeef hot dogs from the Menonite place called Schmuck’s or something ($3, sautéed onions and ketchup and mustard). Ate those at about the same rate I had been reading. Got good coffee ($2) and was back among the bums before the hour was gone, ready to go.

Scanned every page of an old hagiography of MacDonald in no time, gleaning without impatience; did a second tome as well. With the help of a chapter title and indexes I then gleaned sufficiently from a very decent biography I decided I had to own—it was gold. I was almost done by three.

Two books I did not get to—both primary sources. One was a book of poems, and the other they let me check out, which was very lucky. I am the Donald Trump of library expeditions today: on a roll.

So I returned elated and on the radio they played Dvorak. And I was thinking: if I can get really good at this, I won’t even have to open the books. I’ll laser the information straight out of them, pondering them penetratingly on the table in the library, surrounded by bums. Then I can type it up and do twenty books every time I go there. And hot dogs.

Tonight the semester is looking a lot more manageable than it was early this morning.

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