I Unlearn to Read - Skimming And the Loss of Deep Understanding
Why skimming is such a huge problem
Neuroscientific research shows that our society is increasingly losing the ability to read. The so-called skimming is increasingly taking the place of understanding, analytical reading. I've been watching myself for a while to see if that's all right. Here is what I learned.
Neuroscientific research shows that our society is increasingly losing the ability to read. Instead of understanding, analytical reading, so-called skimming is becoming more and more common. To find out if that was true, I observed myself for a while. Here is what I learned.
Some time ago, I read an article in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf in which Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, writes about the loss of our ability to read texts thoroughly and focused.
According to her research, the shift in reading from analog media such as books and magazines to digital media leads us to read more and more superficially and hastily. A deep understanding of what has been read is no longer achieved, Wolf says.
That sounded worrying, and I wanted to know if I was already infected by the skimming virus. What I found out is scary.
I can't relax reading anymore.
Only when I consciously observed myself reading did I realize that something had changed in recent years. I used to like to read to relax.
Today is different. I caught myself judging everything I read by its usefulness to me.
Instead of thick fiction tomes, today I almost exclusively consume non-fiction books about marketing, self-optimization, work techniques, and health topics. I read my last Stephen King novel years ago.
Why is that? If I'm honest with myself, I'm always afraid I'm gonna miss something. Who can guarantee me that the time I spend reading Book A would not be used much more profitably with Book B?
I was very shocked when I realized that I really thought this way. I am an author of crime novels and thrillers and as such depend on people who like to be carried away by good stories into another world. What kind of author would I be if I wasn't a good reader myself anymore?
The oversupply forces to select, but even to choose, less and less time is available.
In former times, in my time as a pupil and student, there was no Internet. I had to buy books, magazines, and newspapers if I wanted to read something.
The appreciation of a book you bought for a lot of money because you wanted to read it was enormous. It would never have occurred to me to abort a book and not finish it.
Today I read even the fewest articles on medium wholly. A constant flood of new pieces with reading times between three and fifteen minutes is courting my attention. At Amazon, I can read an unlimited number of books via Kindle Unlimited and the selection there is also huge.
There are thousands of free, valuable, inspiring or entertaining newsletters available, and I'm sure I've subscribed to at least two dozen.
But what do I really read from the huge offer?
I even read less today than I used to.
Although I am buying and reading more books today than ever before, I am still convinced that I am reading less on balance. How do I come to this contradictory conclusion? How can I read less than I used to when I read more books and articles today?
This has to do with the definition of reading. I actually read my Stephen King novels and the news magazine I subscribed to from beginning to end, word by word.
The books and articles that I consume today, on the other hand, I skim over for the most part. I got used to the Skimming because I imagined that it was a productive reading technique.
One looks for keywords in the text and then, more or less intuitively, briefly dips into the text at one point or another, reads a few coherent sentences and then rushes on.
In the end, in this way, I have read from a seven-minute medium article, perhaps only six or seven sentences really. I've checked several times - frighteningly enough, it's true.
So it's true: I "read" more today, but not really. What I do today is no more reading.
The attention economy claims its victims - I am one of them
If today everything appears to be relevant because relevance generates attention and attention is money, nothing seems relevant at the end of the day.
Now I'm nobody who lets himself be caught and carried away by content that just happens to flow by - quite the opposite. When I read something, this reading is always preceded by a thorough search and selection. I am very good at researching and therefore usually find precisely what I am interested in at this moment in a short time.
The only problem is that even this minimal selection at the end is still huge. And at least from this selection, I want to read as much as possible. Which brings me back to the initial problem: I have to read superficially.
Am I really lost? Of course not - and neither are you.
Insight is the first step towards improvement. That also applies here. Yeah, we're victims of the attention economy. Yes, our brains are overwhelmed by the flood of information. But as soon as you realize that you are a victim, you can decide not to be one anymore.
It requires an awareness of what is happening to us. When we realize that our new reading habits are damaging our understanding of the world and our mental health, we can take our course.
My little experiment in which I observed how I read today was only a week ago. But already one day after this week this new consciousness has shown effect. Since then, I have been admonishing myself several times a day to shift down a gear while reading and really understand what I'm reading.
It's still pretty exhausting. My brain still wants to rush me through a text as quickly as possible to be able to consume the next one immediately. But I resist. With time, I hope, it will become more natural, and perhaps one day I will be ready again to open a book with eight hundred pages, which simply tells a story.