Are we doomed to read distractedly in the digital age? Technology seems to deter slow, immersive reading. Scrolling down a web page with your thumb feels innately less attentive than turning over the pages of a book. Reading on a screen, particularly a phone screen, tires your eyes and makes it harder for you to keep your place. So online writing tends to be more skimmable and list-like than print. At the top of a web article, we are now often told how long it will detain us, forewarned that the words below are a “15-minute read”. The online reader’s put-down is TL;DR. Too long; didn’t read.
The cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf argued recently that this “new norm” of skim reading is producing “an invisible, game-changing transformation” in how readers process words. The neuronal circuit that underpins the brain’s capacity to read now favours the rapid ingestion of information, rather than skills fostered by deeper reading, like critical analysis and empathy.
We shouldn’t overplay these dangers. All readers skim. Skimming is the skill we acquire as children as we learn to read more sophisticatedly. From about the age of nine, our eyes start to bounce around the page, reading only about a quarter of the words properly, and filling in the gaps by inference. One of the little miracles of silent reading is that we can do it so quickly and yet also subvocalise, semi-hearing the words in our heads. Skimming is all part of that virtuoso human act.
I remember being taught how to skim in grade school, in order to efficiently read a newspaper. Given that American news journalists – at least back then – often used the the inverted pyramid approach, skimming was a good way to get news without having to read to much, and to know when we wanted to read more.
People who complain about skimming are missing the point. When they talk about reading articles on the internet, skimming is a useful strategy. The problem, however, is when that’s all that people read. I don’t think many people skim novels, though sometimes when a book isn’t that good, and I want to get to the end, I do skip some of the slow parts. Skimming non-fiction books is certainly a valid strategy, because you may not want to read every expanse an author presents.
I do agree that slow reading, or deep reading, is very useful, and worth doing when you read a really good book. But skimming isn’t new, and it’s not changing the way we read. Swiping and scrolling probably have more of an effect on attention spans than skimming articles.