Is Skim Reading the New Normal?

The medium isn't necessarily the message.

Posted Jan 08, 2019

When The Guardian posted its "Best of 2018" articles, Maryanne Wolf's "Skim Reading Is the New Normal" made the cut in the category "Ideas for America," perhaps proving that Americans still love a jeremiad—or, at least, someone who sounds like a Cassandra. Wolf argues that digital media encourage fast, superficial interactions with texts, turning us all into inveterate skimmers, irrespective of whether we're reading Aristotle's Poetics on an iPad or in a book. However, skim reading is as old as mass literacy. The hard news story's inverted pyramid style owes its form to editors' knowledge that readers skim the contents of newspapers, rather than dwelling lovingly on every word of every story. The inverted pyramid delivers the story's gist in the first two paragraphs, then fills in details and color as the story proceeds, enabling readers to break off after consuming a few paragraphs and still emerge with a reasonable grasp of the story's importance, relevance, and gist.

Similarly, the sense of touch Wolf covers, drawn from research by Karin Littau and Andrew Piper, which ostensibly gives a sense of spatial "thereness" to a text, refers to a reader's sense of where they are in any text: How close are we to the end of the chapter, article, or book? In fiction in particular, we add different weights to events we read when we realize they occur toward the end of a text since these events confer closure on the narrative. However, we can gain this sense of "thereness" by merely knowing where we are in a chapter or novel—a feature of all e-readers.

However, readers may skim print as insistently as they do digital text, and a single study of a short story designed to appeal to teenagers—the kind of genre that invites rapid reading—fails to prove that students made to read Kant on an iPad for a writing assignment would skim Critique of Pure Reason. In fact, the author of one of the other studies Wolf cites, Anne Mangen, found that reluctant readers were likelier to pursue more reading with a digital reader than with a print book. Viewed another way, the same e-readers Wolf bemoans as the cause for students avoiding weighty classics of 18th- and 19th-century literature might well encourage more readers to engage with them.

Nor would an iPad or Kindle version of the same book invite students to avoid the prospecting and retrospecting we inevitably do with dense, rich texts. Instead, the digital format can make finding specific passages easier, inviting more prospecting and retrospecting of digital text—precisely the opposite of what Littau and Piper's research found. Ironically, one of the researchers whose work Wolf cites as central to her hypothesis, Andrew Piper, has argued that technology doesn't inevitably change our habits of reading.

It's not the medium but the content and context that determine how we engage with a text. Close reading may be a habit most people leave behind with their education, not an inevitable development of reading a physical page.