There was a time, maybe a decade ago, when Lester Orman could have looked at and absorbed this entire paragraph and a good half of the next one before you had finished processing the early clauses of this sentence. Speed reading has never caught on as an attraction of any meaningful depth in America, but in small circles throughout the country the ability is revered as though heaven-sent. Lester was, in his heyday and before the boycott, one of the brightest stars in the pantheon of celerilecture (though nobody called it that, due to a collective disappointment with the shortage of sleeker roots for “speed”), a hero on a circuit which had very few heroes.
From the outset I was captivated by a singular curiosity to know what it was that made him stop. I tried several times, especially before I had met him, to imagine the sentence that broke the camel’s back, the passage so abominable as to make a man who could dispense with a Tolstoy novel in one sitting refuse to interact with text of any kind ever again. I was reluctant, though—afraid, even, irrational though it seems—to broach the subject outright. While the question vexed me to no end, and while I longed to simply guess that it was some three-page Faulknerian run-on or one self-important postmodern polemic too many, I thought it somehow best not to break his peaceful silence on the matter.
Word of Lester Orman first came to my attention about two and a half years ago, after the publication of the first in what I intended to be a series of respectably provocative papers on the far-reaching ramifications of literacy, or lack thereof, in third world countries. A photocopied article from an obscure midwestern journal appeared in my mailbox one morning in a small grey envelope addressed in a spidery hand. It turned out to be from a Professor Markham, colleague of the professor who had supervised my postgraduate work and theretofore non-acquaintance of mine, and accompanied a note saying that the enclosed had brought my niche of study to mind. The article itself relied entirely on another article for its factual content, taken from a weekly newspaper from a remote town in Kansas in which, amidst promotions for the local cinema and beauty parlors, ran an in-depth account of that year’s speed reading contest and an interview with Mr. Orman, the incumbent champion fifteen years running. (My suspicions were later confirmed that the contest was held in Kansas every three years not because the region was home to very many agile readers, but in deference to the comfort of the inevitable winner. In effect, it was not so much a contest as a perennial celebration of his unconventional talent, but anyone who cared to try to outread him was suffered gladly.) The piece I read was more or less current, but the reportage to which it alluded (with, I thought, a distinctly pleasing anthropological smirk) was at least five years old. Quite taken with the article, if only due to the palpable kitsch value of a pursuit so ludicrous and the extent to which people seemed to actually care about it, I read it over a few times, affixed it nonchalantly to my refrigerator, and sent a cordial thank-you note to Professor Markham.
For the next few weeks I gave the matter little thought, or at least no more than I did any of the other charming tidbits squirming on the fridge under equally charming magnets. And then one evening I found myself seven eighths through, and completely engrossed in, a detective novel whose name and author are scarcely worthy of mention. Just as the hardy protagonist teetered toward the killer lurking in the shadows of a Dutch metro station, the phone rang. I answered it irritably to find a friend reminding me she would be picking me up presently for an art opening (I had no recollection of agreeing to attend, but I conceded, more averse to disappointing her than to the idea of wallowing in the trite symbolism of modern art). Yet the moment I hung up, eager to return to the Gare du Bellay and the bloodshed it would no doubt soon see, my outlook on the matter had become something altogether different: now it was a race, me against time, a question of whether I could get to the bottom of the mystery before hurrying out the door, or whether the neat plot twist at the end would nag me incessantly for the rest of the evening. Sitting down with an undignified decisiveness, I began to read where I had left off, but could not help notice myself fidgeting more than usual; try as I might, I could not keep my focus on what I was reading so much as the pressure under which I was trying to read it. I combed each word intensely, looking for the subtlest hint to aid my investigation, hesitating and rereading if I glossed over the smallest preposition. Not due to any special desire to be so careful, mind you, but quite the opposite: though it was efficiency I wanted, I could not silence the fear that my reckless pace would leave me missing some crucial detail by the end. And so I labored, at once quickly and very slowly, glancing at the clock at least ten times a page.
By the time the buzzer stirred me, like an alarm clock from uneasy snooze-button sleep, I had only made it fourteen pages further, hardly far enough to narrow out any suspects other than the chef (whose alibi I already believed to be genuine). Just as I had feared, the intrigue of the novel precluded my enjoyment of or attention to anything else that evening. (The art in question, a “fusion” (bastardization) of painting and glassblowing, was subpar no matter what ontological analytical framework I employed, but I paid my standard compliments to the artist all the same.) Still, I quickly began to care less about the plot itself than how frustrating it was that I lacked the discipline to plow through it. The moment I got home, of course, I confined myself to my room, ignoring phone calls and dirty dishes, and stayed up until the book was through (it was the au pair), reading now at a comparatively leisurely pace. But I finished it with a spiteful snarl on my face all the while, resentful of the book for taking its sweet time to play out, of my mental workings for being so susceptible to distraction, of time itself for slipping away so quickly.
It wasn’t until the next morning, no doubt after some Daliesque dreams of flying clocks and highbrow art and oppressive words, that Lester Orman suddenly caught my eye from the refrigerator, beaming with pride and holding aloft some frightful Dickensian tome. The hint of bitterness left in me from the tease of last night’s read immediately grew into an earnest respect for his ability. I marveled at his astonishing mental faculties—such discipline and intellect!—and wanted to know how to do it myself, to be able to brush away words with the flick of an eyelash. I seized the article and stuffed it in my breast pocket as I walked out the door.
Two months later I was seated opposite Lester for the first time in a small Chinese restaurant in Dixwell, Kansas. A few days of research had convinced me that there was not much more to find out about him than what I already knew (he was 39, a welder, unmarried); the harder part was the subtle coaxing that allowed me a week of wholly undeserved vacation from the editing agency where I was sheepishly employed between more intellectually fulfilling jobs. Finding Lester was a relatively straightforward affair; after a solid afternoon on the phone purporting to be various important personages, I managed to coax his address and telephone number from a teller at the Dixwell Bank and Trust (having called the same bank twice before and losing the nerve needed to lie to higher-ranking bank officials). I waited until Saturday to call his house, both fearing and hoping that I would not find him in. But there he was on the line after three terrifying rings, gruff, midwestern, personable. I blurted out my name and some cursory line about hoping this wasn’t a bad time, and got to business as casually as I could. “I—I’m writing an article about celerilecture,” I offered.
“Cele—speed reading. You’re the country’s foremost reader, are you not?”
He chuckled, a disarmingly friendly sound. “Well, it’s been a while, buddy. My reading days are over.” So he had given up competitive reading. That was fine; I could still work from there. My celerilecture article had been a partial lie, introduced to facilitate a discourse much faster than a fan’s (or my) prattling admiration would have; I had known I needed to find him and get at his secrets—pick his brain, as they say—but that vague search for answers had been the extent of my plan. If he hadn’t competed in a while, so be it. So much the better. Some editorial distance would be good. I pressed on. “Would you mind if we met and I asked you some questions?”
“Nah, nah, I’m not doing anything until eight. You wanna meet somewhere?”
“Well,” I faltered, “here’s the thing, I’m in New York.”
“New York?” he repeated, his voice wide-eyed.
“Yes, I’m afraid so. I was thinking we could talk in a couple of weeks—would the weekend of the twenty-fourth be alright?”
“Ah, yeah, yeah, I guess so.”
“Wonderful, thank you. Would you mind if I sent you a list of a few questions ahead of time so we have some place to start? I can mail them to you next week.”
He paused. “Well, see, like I said, I don’t read anymore. Maybe you could call me up next week and tell me what they are and I’ll get started thinking about ‘em?”
“Sure,” I said, eyebrows furrowed, unclear on his drift.
“Great. I’m home after four—well, I guess it’ll be five there—five on weekdays.”
“Fantastic,” I heard myself say. Something wasn’t adding up, but I did my best to pull it together for the landing. “Thank you so much.”“No problem,” he said serenely. “You take care.”
I sat for a moment, the dull post-connection silence pressed to my ear, wondering what he had meant by “I don’t read anymore.” Had his years of intense visual stimulation (or, come to think of it, welding—welders use blowtorches, don’t they?) taken their toll on his talented eyes? Maybe he was blind, or near-blind, or nearsighted or farsighted or lazy-eyed; I hated to think of my research project (based on a whim though it was) becoming the chronicle of such tragedy, but at least cautionary tale was better than no tale at all. Still—was that it? The uncertainty grew and grew to maddening proportions. Finally, against my better judgment, I dialed his number again.
“Mr. Orman, it’s me again. I’m terribly sorry to trouble you, but I had one question which I’m afraid can’t wait.”
“What did you mean when you said you didn’t read anymore?”
The chuckle, that gentle rasp of homespun amusement, returned. “See, I just don’t read anything. I’m not sure how to explain it better than that.”
“Forgive me. Is there something wrong with your eyes?”
“Not the least bit.” He seemed to enjoy the Socratic exchange of our little game.
“I just don’t read voluntarily, that’s all. I don’t read books or letters or the newspaper—heck, I won’t look at a traffic sign if I can avoid it.”
“You don’t—you don’t read words?”
“And not because you can’t, but because you won’t?”
“Exactly. Listen, I gotta run out for a minute. You want me to call you back, or should we talk next week?
I cleared my throat, entirely mystified once again after a minute-long conversation. “No, next week will be, uh, will be fine. Thank you, Mr. Orman.”
But I digress. There I was face to face with Lester Orman at last, disabused of all my heroic images of him in the harsh fluorescent light of the Canton Garden restaurant. I had nearly given up the whole interview idea after we had spoken the second time; what little business I had studying a speed reader seemed an entirely different proposition than studying a man boycotting words. But something drove me on, some overpiqued curiosity tempered with genuine disbelief, and I found myself now looking across a lacquered booth table at this perplexing creature, one menu in front of me and none in front of him.
Lester was a man of uncommon girth. As despicable as I find the axiom that obesity corresponds with esoteric talent, he could not be said to embody any sort of objection. He never seemed bothered by the fact, however, and what little logistical difficulties presented themselves to his unwieldy frame he met with the good-natured aplomb that—I shudder to say it, but—we might have no choice but to call jollity. He was also a man of simple, classical refinement, possessed of a certain smalltown charm that endeared him to me from the moment I walked into the restaurant flustered with anticipation. There was a twinkle that never left his eye, a smile lodged permanently beneath his bushy walrus mustache, a boyish disorder to his greying hair. He was the friendliest enigma I had ever encountered.
A bored-looking waitress appeared and we ordered; after I fumbled phonetically through the name of my broccoli dish, pointing to the menu for clarity, he resolutely asked for the beef lo mein and beamed at the girl. “I only ever get three things here,” he said as she scuttled away. “Keeps things manageable.”
I found myself suddenly at a loss for where to start, a position that had become all but inconceivable to me after a week and a half of agonizing over the right questions. Of the fifteen I had posed to him over the phone three days after we first spoke, none seemed remotely pertinent at the moment. They were all the predictable academic sort, the public interest formalities of a disinterested reporter (what did you read for? how many words per minute? how did you do it?) with the occasional indulgent query germane only to my graduate work (what do you think of illiteracy in Burundi?). None of them even approached the depth of my ever-growing layman’s curiosity—not how or why, but why not and how not. I was not yet prepared to accept that a man could live life day to day without reading. Unschooled laborers in underprivileged nations did it, sure, but could Lester? I summoned the best beginner I could, a listless “Do you have to do that everywhere?”
“Sure,” he said. “I mean, I’m a picky eater anyway. It’s not like I’m missing out on any great food because I don’t read the menu. I know what I like and I stick to it, you know?” As he spoke his eyes darted about and scanned the room, which did not seem at all unusual until I realized that, had I been looking around, my gaze would have been unavoidably drawn to any and all available writing, with no resistance on my part. I tried it; all I registered was the sign for the restrooms, a no-smoking sign, an exit sign. Fragments of decoration surrounded these, of course—amateur paintings, pleasantly neutral flowers in faux-dynastic vases, the like—but my eye rushed to the words, the units of meaning I could precisely grasp. I turned and followed Lester’s eyes as they surveyed the room around us, greedily gathering all the shapes and colors, the things to which I wouldn’t have given a moment’s thought. I marveled that he could get his meaning so minimally, especially now, that he could trade in volumes full of carefully arranged signs and symbols and be satisfied with the simple set of semiotics the natural world provided. It just didn’t seem right.
“So, can you, uh, drive?” I continued, suppressing my impulse to dispense with the formalities and demand to know how he lived. “I could, I suppose,” he said thoughtfully. “I walk most places, so I don’t have to deal with street signs, but I guess I still could if I needed to. Most traffic signals use colors and not words, right? You stop when you see red, that sort of thing.”
“What about time? Do you read clocks?” He shrugged. “See, I don’t really have rules. I just try not to put myself in the way of words. I walk to work, I talk on the phone, I listen to the news on the radio. You’d be surprised how easy it is to let machines do the reading for you. And yeah, I can read numbers if I have to—I’ll look at the clock every now and then if I don’t wanna call the talking clock or wait for them to say it on the air. Dialing the phone, paying for stuff, that sort of thing I don’t mind. Numbers aren’t as bad as words.”
The arrival of our food sabotaged any hope of a follow-up question. Once I had thanked the waitress and covered my lap with a makeshift row of paper napkins, he had already tucked in, handling his chopsticks with such deep focus that it seemed further conversation might kill him. I sighed and began to pick at my broccoli, resolved to gather my thoughts during the meal and renew the interview later, without quite so much inner monologue.
By the time we had finished dinner it was nearly 7.30, and Lester excused himself apologetically to prepare for his nightly game of darts at the local tavern (“I just aim for the center,” he explained; “someone else keeps score.”). Still having made little headway, I offered him a ride, but he graciously declined. We arranged to meet tomorrow before I flew home to document my findings. After I watched him amble off happily toward the main strip of town, I began scouring all the license plates in the dimly lit parking lot to find my drab rental sedan, wondering just how Lester Orman would handle such a predicament.
I met him the next morning outside his house, a modest two-story building with no mailbox out front or address over the door (it was just as well, as the directions he had given me over the phone were based solely on landmarks and, in a few cases, tree size). He wriggled cheerfully into the passenger’s seat of what had turned out to be a burgundy Mercury Sable and directed me to his favorite coffee shop. An equally cheerful woman sat us at a booth by the window, smiling at Lester from the time we walked in the door until she returned to us with an unsolicited plate of bacon and eggs. Setting it in front of him, she finally looked up at him and acknowledged me. “And for your friend?”
After ordering a mostly agreeable breakfast (they did not serve rye toast, puzzlingly), I renewed the interrogation. Lester was having at his eggs with the same zeal as before, but he was nearly done and I had less time to dally. I asked him the things I had decided were still relevant upon regrouping last night at the motel, a couple more logistical things but mainly queries that would lend structure and interest to my essay. He answered everything as thoroughly and unassumingly as I could have imagined—his talent seemed as unremarkable to him as it was to the masses who’d never heard of him—and the hindsight with which he greeted the subject of his competitive days gave an air of sweet nostalgia to the interview: the reflective hero years hence, that sort of thing. He never once seemed to regret having read so much so fast, never gave me that equally-cursed-and-blessed routine. He had just been a particularly fast reader, that was all, and now he was done.
It required an entirely different audacity for me to steer him toward why it was that he was done. It had seemed like such hallowed territory since he first had told me his reading days were over that I skirted the issue carefully; I hoped to at least set him talking in the right direction without having to feel responsible for drudging up the past, perhaps believing he might fool himself into discussing it without my doing. Indeed, my artless subtlety very nearly worked during our last few moments together. “You said yesterday that numbers aren’t as bad as words,” I said hesitantly, breaking the silence in the car as I drove him home. “What did you mean by ‘bad’?”
He smiled beatifically, and I could have sworn he flinched, just barely perceptibly, at the question. “Words, y’know, they’re... they’re great and all, but sometimes they’re just too much.” He paused, tracing something outside the window until it faded from sight. “When I realized I could read that fast, in maybe ninth grade, I didn’t think too much of it, but then after high school I went crazy. I read everything I could get my hands on—novels, history books, travel guides, whatever. With a little practice I got real good—I once read a 1300-page textbook on molecular biology in two hours just to prove I could. I went through the entire town library in a year and a half.”
“But surely that wasn’t a problem. There will always be new books.”
“Yeah, but that’s not it.” He sighed, as though bracing himself for the bittersweet charity of the coming recollection. “At first, once I started going for longer and longer books, I would get frustrated by the things I couldn’t read—I mean, I could read anything, but I wouldn’t understand too much. I used to read the dictionary for an hour each night. That was slower going, took me about a month. Then I read other dictionaries, other reference books, thesauruses, even rhyming books. I did it because I wanted to understand everything, you know? Because I thought there was only so much to learn, a set amount of knowledge you could get. I never thought there was anything great about using big words and all that—no offense, I know you’re one of those academic types—I just wanted to be able to get everything.”
“And what happened?” I bristled only slightly at the academic remark. “You’re clearly a smart person; I should think you would be able to get most everything with a little time.”
He sighed again. “I’m smart enough, I guess, but it got to be too much. I got obsessed with etymology and philology, roots and connotations and all that, and once I figured out I could never understand everything it was too late to go back. Just the sight of a word, it’d drive me crazy. Thank God I could hear them without too much trouble, but—I’d look at a comic strip and stay up all night thinking about hidden meanings and subtexts and synonyms and anagrams. It was involuntary. I’d lie awake for hours if I read a single article in the paper before bed—sometimes just the sight of a word in the headline would do it. When it got really bad even the goddamn baseball scores set me off.”
“So what did you do?” I asked meekly.
“I had to stop registering it,” he said, tone heavy but eyes still aglow. “All of it.”
He turned to me slowly with a bemused look, then returned to the window. “It’s not too easy, I can tell you that.”
“I just can’t imagine being able to not concentrate like that,” I murmured, transfixed.
“No, no,” he said gravely. “It’s just the opposite. It takes a thousand times more concentration than speed reading ever did. It’s not just not reading books and ignoring signs. Words are everywhere. You have to be able to find them and tune them out before you can process them. Imagine squinting your eyes so you can’t see something, but still focusing enough to see everything around it. You do it long enough, you begin to think of the letters themselves as characters from a completely foreign alphabet.”
I said nothing; I kept driving. I glanced at the storefronts and street signs around us, the bumper stickers and vanity plates in front of us. I couldn’t do it—I couldn’t not understand them. The symbols of everyday life, all its details and permutations, screamed out and I was powerless not to interact. I felt defeated and empty after a split second of resistance; I dare say ten minutes, let alone a lifetime, assaulted by so much unknowable meaning would have driven me mad.
“Stop sign,” he said.
Another letter appeared in my mailbox a week ago, in the same gentle grey envelope with the same spidery inscription: Professor Markham, ever the vigilant skimmer of journals and mailer of clippings, had written to tell me of Lester’s passing. She had enclosed an obituary she had managed to track down from the same local paper that had introduced me to him, an entire half-page describing his life and accomplishments—he had been an especially illustrious boy scout before his reading career, and so forth—and celebrating his talent which thrust a few extra hobbyists into the local economy every few years. He died peacefully at home, after an alarming coronary episode a few weeks before. The threat of poetic justice that loomed over him daily, in the guise of high voltage signs or allergic warning labels, never did catch up with him.
I had spoken with Lester occasionally after the interview, and though he would come to mind each time I read on a deadline or paused to consider a connotation, I managed to lose touch with him after about a year. Somehow I never finished the paper about him; whether because I was too mesmerized by his story to attain the proper distance or because it seemed vulgar to reduce him to so many hateful words I am still not certain. I suppose, all things considered, the world itself has lost little in Lester, as his days of role-model-hood had long since given way to an impractical, if harmless, life contrary to traditional sensibilities. But a man gifted with not only the astonishing mental prowess needed to read as quickly as he could, but the inconceivable discipline needed to suppress it, is gone, and that seems enough of a tragedy for me to commit something to writing, in some twisted and paradoxical memoriam. I can only hope he is at peace now, no longer beset by those demonically loaded words to which the rest of us cling for dear life, and that his gravestone is tastefully blank.