Do we stigmatize the speed at which we read? In order to feel confident that I fully understand a text, it should be no surprise to you, given our early homework assignments, that I read and re-read texts, and even isolated sections of texts, in order to feel that I fully understand what is being said, and to ensure that I can develop my own critical perspective on it.
Furthermore, how does reading speed, and any associated stigmas attached to it, apply to the New Media landscape? This article extends and challenges some of the ideas addressed by Carr in his search engine article.
Crossen, Cynthia. “Skimming vs. Reading.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 17 Oct, 2011. Web. 21 Oct, 2011.
I often catch my daughter skimming the books she’s supposed to be reading for her college classes. I say skimming isn’t the same as reading. She disagrees.
—K.C., Phoenix, Ariz.
My personal rule is that if I find myself skimming a novel, I must put it down. I make two exceptions: for mysteries whose authors fail to keep me interested in anything but the identity of the killer; and for popular fiction that I otherwise wouldn’t read but that everyone’s talking about (“Twilight”; “The Da Vinci Code”; “The Bridges of Madison County”). If my engagement with a novel can be reduced to “find out what happens,” then someone’s not doing his or her job, either the author or me or both.
When I’m reading anything but a book, however, I’m usually skimming, as most sane people do in this text-saturated world, and it’s certainly appropriate for students forced to read dreary textbooks. Yet I worry that skimming has become my brain’s default setting. As much as I love Trollope, Dickens and Eliot, they do try my patience. But at the point where I realize I’m about to start skimming, my literary superego—my late mother—wonders if I really have something better to do than read a leisurely description of the Court of Chancery or a parliamentary reform bill. It’s surprising how often the answer is no.
Actually, when I say skimming, I mean skipping—just passing over whole paragraphs. Skimming is reading quickly, about 450 words a minute for a proficient reader; scanning—the way we read dictionaries or telephone directories—is done at about 600 words a minute. These are the first two reading levels of the five hypothesized by Ronald P. Carver, a professor of educational psychology. The middle level, which Mr. Carver called “rauding,” is the level at which we read literary fiction, or letters or long magazine stories. To oversimplify his theory, when we raud we are not only reading every word but comprehending their meaning in the context of sentences and paragraphs. (Mr. Carver’s other two levels are reading to learn—studying—at about 200 words a minute and reading to memorize, 138 words a minute.)
Reading slowly has been pathologized in the U.S. in the past half-century, while reading speedily has been glorified. It’s unquestionably advantageous in academia and many workplaces to be a fast reader. No one brags about being a slow reader, whereas Oscar Wilde claimed he could read both pages of an open book simultaneously, and John Stuart Mill complained that his reading speed was being held back by the pace of his fingers turning pages.
Slow readers confess reluctantly, writes John Miedema, author of a book called “Slow Reading,” and then he confesses: He’s a slow reader, taking a month to read a book others might consume in a weekend. Slow reading is a problem, he acknowledges, if it’s an involuntary consequence of cognitive or visual impairment. But maybe some people prefer to read slowly. There are even slow or deep readers who recommend subvocalizing, silently sounding out every word, even if—and here the ghost of Mrs. DePatis, my third-grade teacher, demurs—moving your lips.
This kind of reading, wrote the poet Donald Hall in an essay, “goes through the ear—though the eye takes in the print and decodes it into sound—to the throat and the understanding, and it can never be quick. It is slow and sensual.” He contrasted this with what he called “narcotic reading”: “One can read ‘Anna Karenina’ passively and inattentively and float down the river of lethargy as if one were reading a confession magazine: ‘I Spurned My Husband for a Count.'”
But back to skimming. Mortimer Adler, author of “How to Read a Book,” recommends skimming as “the first sublevel of inspectional reading. Your main aim is to discover whether the book requires a more careful reading.” But he notes that this is “a very active sort of reading. It is impossible to give any book an inspectional reading without…having all of one’s faculties awake and working.”
Some people even recommend skimming every book first, but only to get the plot out of the way, so that on the second reading you’re focused on the finer points of language, character development, patterns, themes.
In “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” Pierre Bayard, a professor of literature, makes a case for skimming as a way to maintain “a reasonable distance” from a book. “Skimming books without actually reading them does not in any way prevent you from commenting on them,” Mr. Bayard wrote. “It’s even possible that this is the most efficient way to absorb books, respecting their inherent depth and richness without getting lost in the details.”
I’m a sucker for details, so this isn’t the way I like to read fiction. But it’s a personal choice, and any speed is fine as long as you know what you’re doing, and why.
—Send your questions about books and reading to Cynthia Crossen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Write to Cynthia Crossen at email@example.com