Catching Your Second Wind
August 1988

“Catching Your Second Wind,” New Era, Aug. 1988, 16

Catching Your Second Wind

Reading can be a breeze once you learn how to get the most out of it. You’ll have worlds of new adventure right at your fingertips.

The young freshman student seated across the desk from me slumped despondently as he rehearsed a series of recent disappointments. The final blow had been his first semester’s grades. In every case they had been below his expectations, and he was beginning to doubt his ability to benefit from the college experience he had looked forward to since childhood.

Opening one of the books on my desk at random, I asked him to read a few paragraphs for me. He made it through about 50 words doggedly, without expression and with awkward pauses that betrayed how little he was understanding what he was reading. Gently, I asked him what magazines he read regularly and what the name was of the last book he had thoroughly enjoyed. His answer to both questions was simply a shake of his head and muttered comment about how “hard” reading had always been for him.

I suggested that he have one of the campus clinics check to see if he had a functional disorder that made reading unusually difficult for him, but I assured him that such conditions were relatively rare and that quite probably his was a case of never having learned to read well enough to enjoy it and thereby turn reading into the basic learning tool it should be.

Knowing that he had been recruited by the university as a long-distance runner, I suggested that he had never brought himself to the stage in reading that he routinely achieved in running, the point at which he caught his “second wind.” I reminded him that making it through to the point that heart and lungs suddenly returned to their normal operation was painful but that he could count on it, and it was very much a part of his success as a runner.

Happily, in learning to read easily and well—however difficult the process—he could achieve a permanent “second wind” that did not have to be struggled for each time it was used. I assured my young friend that, although many successful students had learned to read easily and well in grade school, he was far from alone in college in attempting to increase both reading speed and comprehension. Fortunately, there were remedial courses to help, and I suggested that he not delay in bringing his reading to a collegiate level.

A semester later, a smiling young man brought his latest grade report to show me. Obviously, he now was competing well—and he knew how to do even better.

Reading well is not only the key to understanding, and the confidence that such skill brings, it is an ever renewing resource. In reading easily we are never without friends. Those long dead and from far countries whisper to our minds and stir our hearts. As we develop our skills to hear fully what they would share, we grow to match their expectation of us.

To select a simple example of the power that a skillful poet can give to his words beyond their obvious meaning, consider “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe. This poem has long been a standard to use in developing a sense of what is being communicated in poetry by the sound of words, quite apart from what we call their denotative or usual dictionary meaning. The poem itself is divided into four sections; each section quickly sets the tone of what is being offered for you to participate in by stressing vowels which literally force you to hear sounds which echo the attitude the poet wants you to experience.

The opening section begins as follows:

Hear the sledges with the bells—

Silver bells!

Already the “e” and “i” sounds begin to tinkle, and the rest of this stanza is filled with words such as “merriment” and “twinkle,” which keep light, rapid tones tripping off your tongue almost in spite of yourself. The next section seems to begin the same way but actually sets an attitude quite opposite from the first:

Hear the mellow wedding bells

Golden bells!

With just a relating echo of the earlier “e” sound, we now move to “o” and “w.” Almost automatically, a word like “mellow” slows one’s speech, and “golden” almost oozes out. By section three we are prepared for what sounds are doing in this poem, and we are not disappointed:

Hear the loud alarum bells

Brazen bells!

These arresting sounds are followed by “startled,” “scream,” and “shriek.” By now we are caught up in Poe’s attempt to make his words sound like what they mean and are ready for his final stanza:

Hear the trolling of the bells

Iron bells!

We are even prepared for words like “solemn,” “moaning,” and “groaning.” If, finally, we feel that Poe may have carried his attempt to have sounds echo meaning to extremes, he has shown us a whole dimension of poetry that we may not have known before.

Other fine writers are similarly skillful. We guess, correctly, that the American poet Walt Whitman has been a working carpenter when we read the following line: “the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp” (Song of Myself, stanza 15, line 2). Once more, the writer is trying to share experience, not merely describing it. The sound of the plane cutting a shaving from the edge of a plank is perfectly caught by this casual line.

Good reading is probably best compared to playing a pipe organ. Both hands and both feet bring individual components into a harmonious whole. If one has developed his reading skills until he can hear what is being said as if it were being read aloud, while at the same time noting the choice and position of words being used to direct his understanding (equivalent to playing with both hands), he is ready to add the harmony and richness which a fully realized chord provides. If few of us will know the thrill of playing the pipe organ well, all can know the exhilaration, the sense of full participation, that good reading makes possible.

One of the delights of reading sensitively is discovering the cues which many good writers provide to emphasize a point or give it reinforcement. When Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn tell us of his indifference at school, he has him not only confess but demonstrate his lack of interest in education—if we don’t skip right over this hilarious illustration: “Well, three or four months run along, and it was well into the winter, now. I had been to school most all the time, and could spell, and read, and write just a little, and could say the multiplication table up to six times seven is thirty-five, and I don’t reckon I could ever get any further than that if I was to live forever” (Huckleberry Finn, chapter 4, paragraph 1).

“Six times seven is thirty-five” has the hallmark of genius. How better could we be told that Huck Finn’s identification with education is rote memorization at its most thoughtless level. Once more, the author reinforces by seemingly casual illustration, but we miss much of the enjoyment of reading if we are so ill at ease in just following from word to word that we fail to note what is really happening as language becomes meaning.

Too often, we agree that “literature” may be interesting—even exciting—but think that scripture is something to be read dutifully, with little expectation of the kind of enjoyment we hope for in secular writing. In setting a scriptural reading schedule we rarely expect to be carried away and go beyond that which we have decided upon in advance. In truth, we often look ahead to see how many verses our chapter for today has—and sigh when we find it one of the longer ones.

What we need is a fresh look at some of the most exciting reading ever provided for mankind, but the scriptures refuse to be skimmed. The “gist” of what they say is never enough. They must be probed, analyzed, prayed over, and reflected upon. Only then will their beauty and significance become evident. Profound reading is never light reading, but it can be immensely rewarding and encouraging, for we meet people who are struggling to find meaning in their lives, just as we are, and most exciting of all, we get to know, truly know, those who share our aspirations—and suffer with those who fall short of capitalizing upon unexpected opportunities.

Consider, Chemish from the Book of Omni. All the ghosts of my own missed chances clamor for a rehearsing as I read the heartbreakingly short contribution Chemish gets to make to the plates of Nephi. It may well be that he didn’t to get a chance at all, for the plates had usually gone from father to son and not from brother to brother, but he seems to be prepared to say only that he saw how his brother wrote, that it is now his turn, and this is the way they have been commanded to do it. “And I make an end.” I can almost feel him clutching my lapels so he can explain that he didn’t expect to make an entry—and I resolve that I will let the example of my friend Chemish remain vivid enough that I will always be ready for what I am asked to do.

I also become aware of the vigor of a man like Enos, whose account is filled with action verbs, whose sentence length seems to be based upon the amount that can be said in one breath and whose main connective is “And.” What a street-meeting speaker he must have been! He is also one of the few prophets in all scripture who tells us of how he is going to feel when he stands in the presence of the Lord—“then shall I see his face with pleasure.” Somehow we expect this of so vital a man.

Perhaps, in really reading the scriptures, we need to reflect upon the full implications of John 1:14: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” When we bring our complete, trained capacity to bear upon the word of God, it does become alive. The prophets become real to us, and we can confide in the Savior as our dearest friend.

Illustrated by Bill Swenson