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skim reading

4 september 2018

"When the reading brain skims texts, we don't have time to grasp complexity, to understand another's feelings or to perceive beauty," writes Maryanne Wolf in a recent Guardian piece on reading and cognition. "I share Wolf's qualms," writes Victor Mair, in the Language Log post I discuss here. As an avid reader, Mair consumed vast amounts of material in his youth, and notes "almost everything I read — if I considered it worth reading at all — I read very carefully, sometimes taking several minutes per page." Kids today are skimming stuff on their devices, and the substitution of a stream of virtual "locations" for the physical referent of a printed page undermines their comprehension and their engagement with reading.

Speed-reading is the enemy, it appears. But as I say in the comments to Mair's post, "it depends entirely on what you're reading." Suppose you are a college composition teacher. You're teaching five sections, each with 20 students – that's actually kind of light duty for an adjunct. This week, you're receiving 100 papers on a standard topic you've assigned twice a year for the past three years. The papers need to be marked and returned by next Monday. "Close, critical reading" (which Mair invokes in his subtitle) is not an option. And even if close, critical reading of these 100 papers were possible, would it be desirable in this situation? How much is a student going to benefit from your taking 45 minutes over their paper, and meeting with them for another 45 to have a heart-to-heart over the shades of meaning involved in adjective choices? "We spend more than two weeks on a single poem by the Tang poet, Wang Wei, called 'Deer Park / Enclosure,' which consists of twenty syllables," says Mair of his own teaching. But a single paper by the 2018 freshman, Jane Doe, called "Letter to the Editor of my College Newspaper," may not actually benefit from the Tang-dynasty treatment – mostly, because it's not written for the same purpose as a classic Chinese poem.

I don't mean to be too snarky, because I'm sure that Mair would acknowledge the instructor's circumstances. Close reading is a central academic skill; so is knowing when, and how, to skim. A huge amount of writing is functional and formulaic. Mair says of his education that "almost everything I read — if I considered it worth reading at all — I read very carefully, sometimes taking several minutes per page." But the things he read included "fiction (e.g., Don Quixote, The Magic Mountain), history (e.g., The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich)." Wonderfully dense as those texts are, they are slightly atypical.

Maryanne Wolf's concern about skimming is magnified by current technologies. "The neuronal circuit that underlies the brain's ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing," she claims. "Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential 'deep reading' processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading."

Two warrants are at work in Wolf's claims. The first is that the human brain has evolved along with the development of literacy. Wolf posits that "the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species' brain more than 6,000 years ago." But you can immediately spot the problem with that warrant. Not only were vanishingly few humans literate 6,000 years ago, but even when I was born – sixty years, two or three generations, ago – only about half the world's population could read. The notion of species-wide evolution of specific skills that enable literacy is dubious. Either only a very small elite evolved these features, or they evolved overnight as literacy spread, or they percolated through a still largely illiterate population, just waiting for modern education to act. It's more likely literacy is a general cognitive ability (facility with visual patterns) in synergy with specific linguistic abilities – especially given that humans are likely to have been linguistic for a hundred thousand years or more, and literate relatively yesterday.

The other warrant is that digital reading is somehow different in nature from reading on paper. Wolf cites research showing that

The sense of touch in print reading adds an important redundancy to information – a kind of 'geometry' to words, and a spatial 'thereness' for text. … Human beings need a knowledge of where they are in time and space that allows them to return to things and learn from re-examination … the 'technology of recurrence.' The importance of recurrence for both young and older readers involves the ability to go back, to check and evaluate one's understanding of a text.
This rings truer than Wolf's flimsy evolutionary scenario. Certain readers (I can vouch from introspection and conversation) have strong (if usually intermediate-term) visual memory of the texts they've read. They remember facts or quotes with an added location tag of sorts: left-hand-page, 2/3 of the way down, 2/5 of the way through the volume. Such location gets a little harder with Kindle or .pdf books, which don't have right- and left-hand pages and are the same thickness no matter where you are in them. It gets a lot harder with continuous, unpaginated, resizable texts like … well, like the one you're reading now.

Nevertheless, the "page" itself is not synonymous with reading. Till scribes adopted the codex in late antiquity, Western people read from scrolls, which don't have right- and left-hand pages, and are hard to flip back and forth in. Cultures have developed numerous solutions for storing and retrieving texts, and none of them may ideally match the wiring of our brains.

Crucially, Wolf's (and Mair's) ideas belong to a style of jeremiad that we have long had with us, but seems (ironically enough) to be accelerating as digital learning spreads. The prophets of doom tell us that these kids today aren't like us: their brains have been frazzled by all those bits and bytes, so they are "growing up / All out of shape from toe to top," as Yeats said of bad young Irish poets. These kids skim where they ought to read, they use strange abbreviations in their text messages (except they really don't anymore; that was a flip-phone thing from a decade ago), they "write like they talk," they don't know grammar, and they don't mind their manners or their elders.

Except … let's stipulate that skimming is bad; or at least, that it's as bad to skim the Decline and Fall as it is to pore lovingly over a newsletter from Human Resources. The thing is, I don't see how skimming is particularly welded to reading on electronic devices. Physical books are excellent for skimming; so are newspapers and broadsheets; heck, I bet Aristotle was a whiz at spinning scrolls till he got to some information he could use. Here's a factoid: a large percentage of the reviews here at lection are of texts I read in electronic form. Sometimes I tip to having read them digitally, and sometimes not. Can you tell which books I read on paper, and which on a screen? I mean, all my reviews are idiotically superficial, so that may not be the best example. But I daresay that a substantial number of book reviews and critical essays in this century have been based on e-book texts, and that the results are indistinguishable from reviews of print copies.

In any case, if I doubt that the human brain fundamentally rewired itself 6,000 years ago, I doubt all the more that it has done so since the inception of the iPad. When you test kids on reading comprehension, you sometimes draw blanks and sometimes you get amazing recall. Last week I gave students .pdf copies of an excerpt from a medieval Irish tale. When we got to class discussion, some students had no earthly idea what was going on, and others had a keen recall of far more plot details than I did. Some readers absorb information from texts – and affect, too – like verbal sponges. Some are like Teflon, nothing sticks. I'd need to see a lot more research before I blame that dichotomy on e-readers.

Mair, Victor. "Skim reading, speed reading, and close, critical reading." Language Log, 28 August 2018.