Skim reading, speed reading, and close, critical reading

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When I was in high school and college, I read massive amounts of 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), current events (e.g., Time from cover to cover for about twenty years), and so forth.  But almost everything I read — if I considered it worth reading at all — I read very carefully, sometimes taking several minutes per page, and rereading particularly difficult passages until I assured myself that I understood what they were really about.

I had heard about Evelyn Wood's speed reading — it was hard to miss because it was so widely advertised — but was always skeptical of the extravagant claims made for it (e.g., finishing Gone with the Wind — nearly seven hundred pages — in less than an hour).  I could, if I wished, read very quickly by focusing on key elements of texts, but then I never felt that I completely comprehended them and that my retention was limited.

Because of my reading habits, it was always very important for me to have quiet surroundings when I was working my way through books, articles, essays, and so forth.  I was particularly deliberate when reading poetry, because I felt then, and still feel to this day, that to fully appreciate a good poem, one needs to go over it again and again to ruminate and savor not only its meaning, but also its sounds and rhythms.  That is the approach I use in my Chinese Poetry and Prose class, which I offer every third year, and whose current iteration began today.  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.  I may ask my students to keep a journal of their growing awareness of what the poem is actually telling us (in my forty years of teaching, I've never asked students to keep a journal about anything, but it might be worth doing in this class).

Now psychologists are talking about a new kind of reading that is a function of human interactions with their digital devices:  "Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound:  When the reading brain skims texts, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings or to perceive beauty. We need a new literacy for the digital age", by Maryanne Wolf, The Guardian (8/25/18).  Wolf is Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA.

Look around on your next plane trip. The iPad is the new pacifier for babies and toddlers. Younger school-aged children read stories on smartphones; older boys don’t read at all, but hunch over video games. Parents and other passengers read on Kindles or skim a flotilla of email and news feeds. Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. 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.

This is not a simple, binary issue of print vs digital reading and technological innovation. As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating. In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it….

Wolf concludes:

We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

I share Wolf's qualms.  To that end, in my teaching and in my interactions with readers more generally, I try to encourage them to take their time with texts and to dig more deeply into their substance, not just get their dàgài de yìsi 大概的意思 ("approximate / rough / general / overall meaning").  That's definitely how I teach my students to read Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese.

[Thanks to June Teufel and Charles Parton]


  1. JHH said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 5:06 pm

    "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia." –Woody Allen

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 5:21 pm

    "The Future Of The Reading Brain In An Increasingly Digital World", Meghna Chakrabarti, WBUR (8/21/18)

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

    "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."

  4. David Donnell said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 5:59 pm


    1. To look at or read (something) in a casual, relaxed way.
    2. To examine or read (something) in a very careful way."

    This is why we can't have nice words!

  5. DCA said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 7:36 pm

    Interesting–though I'm worried about "evolved". Literacy isn't even 6000 years old, for most societies it is more like 600 years at the very most: hardly time for any mutation to take hold. I have to wonder if her experiment indicated her own aging rather than "going digital". I should try re-reading some of Gibbon (read in my early 20's, 40 years ago) though I remember that even then, if I was tired, the meaning tended to flee, and all that was left was the music of his prose–which was no small thing.

  6. BillR said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 8:55 pm

    Since I got my first iPad, several years ago, I’ve noticed I read fewer books and magazines, and when I do read something like that I feel hectored by some unconscious voice telling me to hurry it up already. I’m retired, so there’s no need whatsoever to hurry up anything. (Maybe if there were some pile of stuff I wanted to have read before I died I might feel differently about it.)

    I spend all my time reading stuff on the damn iPad. Not books. Don’t like reading those on a screen—give me a dead tree every time for that, thank you very much. I’m reading this blog on one, and do so pretty much every day, along with a dozen or so others, and NYT, and WaPo, and two local news sites, and comics, and Apple News, and CNN, and CBS and BBC and way too much other crap. There’s too much, it feels like, and I will skim one article after another. Definitely a sense of FOMO, that I never had before the iPad.

    I think I need to put the damn thing down and pick up the very interesting book on the table next to me, and I swear I will do that very thing, just as soon as I read the next article here.

  7. Ricardo said,

    August 28, 2018 @ 9:32 pm

    From the part of the article quoted above, I get that skimming as opposed to reading is bad. But I don't see what's wrong with reading on an electronic device.

    I was already an avid reader, but I read more that ever on my Kindle. One has access to an almost limitless number of free digital books and can carry that library around in one's back pocket. Furthermore, unlike a tablet computer, it's device designed primarily for reading and is difficult to use for other purposes (playing videogames, browsing the web, reading emails etc.) so digital distraction is not really an issue.

    I think the authors went a little overboard in their hatred of modernity.

  8. Florence Artur said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 12:56 am

    Yes, my reading habits have changed a lot since I’ve gone digital, but if anything I am reading more and more thoughtfully than I used to. I spend less time reading books, and maybe I have more difficulties reading the same thing for a prolonged time. And given the current deleterious climate, reading often makes me anxious where in the past it helped escape. But I have never before learned so much, and thought about what I used to take for granted so much.
    Sure, things change. Some for the worse, others for the better. On the whole though, I don’t know.

  9. cameron said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 1:08 am

    I suspect the divide between digital reading and print reading is far less profound than the divide between reading and the reliance on memory, which was so memorably discussed in Plato's Phaedrus.

  10. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 2:30 am

    Back in secondary school, my Swedish teacher told us that it was important to read rapidly because it, allegedly, improved comprehension as well as saved time. I don't think she ever specified how rapidly you were supposed to read, and I certainly didn't come away with any strong impression whether she thought I read fast enough.

    Regarding changes in reading in digital age, I certainly read less books now than in the pre-iPad age, but that may be more to do with now having a job and a wife than any digital distractions. Switching from exclusively paper books to doing much of my reading on an e-ink e-reader has probably reduced the decline, since it's easier to bring along than most physical books.

  11. AntC said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 3:00 am

    I read massive amounts of fiction …
    I was working my way through books, articles, essays, …

    Then you've been very privileged to never need reading for a job. Were you never in some college administrative role?

    I don't think electronic media have much to do with the need for skim reading: I was already doing that in the era of paper memos and long technical specifications or policy documents.

    1. Do I need to understand the content of this document? Or just be aware that it exists, and what topics it covers? Then War and Peace involves Russia might be adequate.

    2. Is somebody politicking by attempting to sneak through some unacceptable policy change buried in otherwise tedious bureacratic verbiage?

    3. Am I going to become 'accountable' for this content, even though nobody seriously expected I would read it? (When politicians — I mean the responsible kind — complain about the vast amount of reading needed for the job, this is what they're talking about. 99% of what they read they'll never refer to again. The trouble is that at the time of reading, they can't predict which 99%.)

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 3:23 am

    Victor — please excuse my off-topic question, but may I ask the language of tuition/discussion in your Chinese Poetry and Prose class ? Does all tuition/discussion take place in MSM (apart, of course, from when you need to refer to the poetry/prose itself), or does it take place in English ? The reason I ask is that I am wondering to what extent the language of tuition/discussion would affect the discussion itself.

  13. Keith said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 5:28 am


    From the article:

    "the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd"

    When I first read that, I thought that the author, Maryanne Wolf, was trying to say that "the installation of a new circuit in the brain became necessary when humans acquired literacy".

    Then I thought, "that can't possibly be true; that would imply that someone who learns to read as an adult would need to quickly grow a new circuit".

    After carefully reading the quoted article three more times, my understanding of the text is that "about 6000 years ago, our ancestors already had some circuitry in their brains that gave them the ability to count, among other things, and that, over time, this developed into the circuits that allowed the later development of literacy".

    Wolf later seems to explain that this circuitry, already available in the human brain , becomes more powerful in individuals who regularly read in a studious and critical manner, and that a change in habit to more brief and more superficial manner of reading reduces the development of this circuitry. It seems to be like a muscle, that gets stronger as it is exercised more.

  14. Ed Rorie said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 6:52 am

    The Third Reich did rise and fall (Shirer), but the Roman Empire declined and fell (Gibbon). [VHM: fixed; thanks]

  15. Jonathan Cohen said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 7:29 am

    Yes, Wang Wei's "Deer Park" is really amazing and well worth a couple of weeks. My piece on William Carlos Williams's attempt to translate it, published by Words Without Borders, explains why:

  16. Alexandra England said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 7:38 am

    I did my university study by distance learning, and have read so many journal articles on tablets, phones and laptops that when I now have to read anything similar on paper, I find myself trying to scroll up when I reach the bottom of the page.
    When I have to read academic literature on paper, I don't notice any difficulty in concentrating, possibly just because for me digital media are now strongly associated with academic study reading. I would be interested to know if this is common to distance learners in the digital age. I do, when reading articles on paper, very much miss conveniences such as font size ajustability, multimedia annotation and, most of all, the search function.
    On the other hand, while reading for study (digital or paper), I have always taken notes longhand, in a smart black notebook. So I guess a new kind of literacy augments, rather than replaces, the existing practice.

  17. Jenny Chu said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 9:47 am

    To what extent does the specific technology impact the reading experience, I wonder? The Kindle, when it was launched, made a big thing out of its e ink (not the exact name) which was supposed to be better for comfortable reading of long form prose than any other screen. Is there a difference in the brains of Kindle readers vs iPad users?

  18. Robert Coren said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 10:03 am

    @Ed Rorie: I missed that detail because I was too busy being amused by the unintentional implication that the Roman Empire and the Third Reich were one and the same.

  19. TootsNYC said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 10:09 am

    One of the things that, I think, encourages skimming on electronic devices is that a lot of the stuff we're perusing is just not that good.

    I copyedit digital stories for online venues that expect most of the readers to be reading on a phone. It's very low-value. Most of it is pontificating that doesn't add anything new–it's clever expressions of opinions that you yourself have probably already thought.
    A lot of it is a rehash of information that's found on many other sites–a reader may have encountered it before.

    Or, the text is just predictable–if it's a beauty story about lipstick, you only really need the adjectives and the product name. So why spend more time?

    Then there's the timeframe–most smartphone or iPad readers are grabbing that time in between things (while waiting at the doctor's office, or on the morning bus), so they don't feel they're "allowed" to sink it–and there are distractions and a deadline.
    Or they're stealing a little time from work.

    Or, they're using a computer, which is often used for work, so it feels a bit like you're stealing the time.

  20. Joe said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

    Lol – Let's call call it Socrates' revenge! Socrates was, of course, bemoaning the increasing deficiency of extemporaneous performance as we become more "literate".

  21. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    I will probably write a separate blog in response to your question about the language of instruction in Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese courses.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 2:04 pm

    Homer was illiterate and so were the ancient India epic poets. Even Panini, the world's first grammarian, did not rely on writing to transmit his extremely concise and extraordinarily precise rules. Indeed, although Indians were aware of writing from the west during the first millennium BC, they rejected it as a technology that they felt would diminish people's ability to store information and literature in their own mind. I suspect that this deeply grounded respect for memorization skills has something to do with the fact that youths of Indian descent are so highly successful in the spelling bees in America, an uncanny phenomenon that we've addressed many times on Language Log.

  23. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 2:42 pm

    Since we really don't know who Homer was, how can we know that he was illiterate?

  24. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

    I wouldn't read too much into her critique. ;)

  25. Viseguy said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    A thought-provoking, memory-reviving post. My first job after college, 46 years ago, was to teach a reading and study skills program developed by a mom-and-pop company. Speed reading was one of the proffered techniques; we didn't flog it, but let the students decide for themselves how useful it was and in what contexts. The centerpiece was "phrase reading", which encouraged the students to focus visually and mentally on semantic units (phrases or short sentences) rather than individual words, as a way of promoting comprehension and increasing reading speed. This was especially helpful for delayed students who were used to trying to decode texts one word at a time, but was a good refresher for everyone. The other techniques that I recall were scanning, to find a particular piece of information or to get an overview of the text preliminary to a closer reading, and questioning, where the goal was to consciously generate a flow of questions as one read, to develop an interactive relationship with the text and aid close reading. The texts were all taken from the students' actual coursework. Students timed and graded their own exercises and graphed the results, which gave them tangible evidence of progress and provided useful insights, for example, about the (often inverse) relationship between reading speed and comprehension. It seemed to work well then, and, mirabile dictu, the company still exists.

  26. Idran said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 4:19 pm


    "To what extent does the specific technology impact the reading experience, I wonder? The Kindle, when it was launched, made a big thing out of its e ink (not the exact name) which was supposed to be better for comfortable reading of long form prose than any other screen. Is there a difference in the brains of Kindle readers vs iPad users?"

    I'm not sure there's any reason there would be. The difference here is in projective displays vs. reflective displays. Most monitors, televisions, and just electronic devices in general display images by emitting light; they project it out, which is why they tend to cause eye strain over prolonged periods of time. An electronic ink display like a Kindle, however, doesn't emit anything. It's a surface embedded with small spheres colored black on one side and neutral on the other that are magnetically reoriented and then fixed in place to form an image, which can then be read or viewed just as though it was standard print via reflected environmental light, with no light actually produced by the display itself.

    Reflective displays like this are no different physically than reading any other printed text on a surface; the reason they're more comfortable to read is purely because they don't emit light. So there wouldn't be any difference neurologically between the visual stimulus of reading a Kindle and reading a sheet of paper.

    (Of course, if you have an electronic ink display with a backlight, that negates all the eye strain benefit the same as it would if you used one of those book lights that sends light up through a page.)

  27. Tim Morris said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 4:33 pm

    As several people noted above, it depends entirely on what you're reading.

  28. Dave Cragin said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 6:35 pm

    A quote I use in my course on critical thinking relates to the importance of incorporating information into your thought processes:
    A man may hear a 1000 lectures and read a 1000 volumes, and be at the end of the process very much where he was, as regards knowledge.

    Something more than merely admitting it in a negative way into the mind is necessary, if it is to remain there.

    It must not be passively received, but actually and actively entered into, embraced, mastered. The mind must go half-way to meet what comes to it from without.
    -John Henry Newman, (1852) The Idea of a University (English prelate and theologian)

    To my students, I make the point that the above fits with my Chinese learning; I can listen to lots of Chinese. It's not "mine" until I've actively embraced and mastered it.

  29. KevinM said,

    August 29, 2018 @ 7:03 pm

    I intend to comment, but I'm not done reading the post yet.

  30. turang said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 12:57 am

    I have read that Gandhi was an advocate of slow reading. While I cannot place the source, an internet search produced this link:

    that supports my recollection.

  31. Philip Taylor said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 3:06 am

    Idran (electronic paper) — Thank you, I was unaware of that. The Wikipedia article on Electronic_paper is very informative.

    Dave C — Newman's words seem very close to the oriental practice of "mindfullness", a concept whose value seems obvious to me only when I am (for example) trying to put a dozen scoops of ground coffee in a Cona funnel without spilling any …

  32. Rodger C said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 6:51 am

    Isn't epic nowadays often seen as a typical product of early literacy? The Iliad and the Odyssey are said to be each about twice the length of the longest attested oral epic. Wouldn't you need some kind of notation to do that?

    Very likely this is one of those cases where my ideas are thirty years out of date, but …

  33. william holmes said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 9:21 am

    Following @victormair on oral vs. literate traditions, I observe that Maryanne Wolf credits the "reading brain" with many cognitive functions which would have developed prior to the shift to literacy. (Or, for that matter, which in child development precede the acquisition of literacy). Thus, Wolfe's focus should be narrowed to the implications for cognitive functions (broadly defined) of the shift toward "The Screen" as predominant/exclusive source.

  34. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 12:12 am

    Drawing conclusions about reading habits from plane travel seems problematic. When I travel, I take an iPad and an e-reader so I can use the internet and email on the iPad, among other things, and so I have a range of books available on the reader. Plane travel Imposes weight and other logistical restrictions, so I'm not surprised devices are preferred to books for flights.

    My sequence of reading books is often idiosyncratic. I choose from my to-be-read pile based on various impulses, and it used to be a struggle for me to pack books for long trips. Often I would take along things I thought I would want to read, only to discover that some chance reference in a book made me long to read something I'd left behind. Or I would read everything I brought but not be somewhere where I could replenish my book supply. A heavily loaded e-reader is a wonderful thing when insomnia strikes and you're out of range of cellphone and internet connections.

  35. Peter Erwin said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 6:14 am

    @ Idran,

    What, do you think, is specific about the light coming from electronic devices that supposedly make for tired eyes? I can imagine the brightness might be a factor (but then you should get a similar effect from reading printed words on very white paper in bright sunlight). Is there a significant difference in the emitted spectrum versus that reflected from print?

    (It's not simply that electronic devices "project [light] out", because that's physically no different from a printed page reflecting light — if there aren't any photons traveling from the page in the direction of your eyes, you won't see anything on the page.)

  36. peter Erwin said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 6:44 am

    I confess to being incredibly skeptical about this kind of "oh, noes, new technology is destroying out children and our culture" screed. (In part because there are no references that might let you judge how valid or relevant or statistically meaningful the "studies" she refers to.) Not to mention the idea that non-literate peoples are somehow incapable of empathy or insight or of perceiving beauty or having their own thoughts. (How, I wonder, did people ever know what beautiful poetry or paintings were before the invention of critical reading?)

    And, anyway, wasn't the real "skim-reading" damage done in the 18th and 19th Centuries, by the creation and spread of newspapers and magazines? Unlike proper books, where you are physically constrained to spend your time on a single work, those actively encouraged skimming by placing multiple stories (and advertisements!) easily to hand. (If you're old enough to have read printed newspapers, you know that almost no one routinely read them from start to finish with deep attention and empathy…)

    (I can easily imagine a late 15th-Century version of this kind of thing: people agonizing about how printed books, with their mechanically produced, inhumanly identical letters, were diluting the direct, organic nature of reading. Handwritten manuscripts, with their individual, human-made variations and imperfections, obviously made it easier to link the act of reading with the original act of writing, allowing for a more direct and intimate connection between the soul of the reader and the soul of the writer — unlike those mindlessly stamped-out, soullessly identical printed books… Or something like that.)

  37. william holmes said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 10:22 am

    In his original post, Victor notes he may suggest that his students keep a journal on the Wang Wei poem. If the language of instruction is Chinese, perhaps also suggest memorizing the poem (a conveniently short one). When Brodsky was teaching a course on poetry at Mt. Holyoke College (language of instruction English), he required students to memorize some poems.

  38. wanda said,

    September 3, 2018 @ 4:39 pm

    I agree with Barbara Phillips Long about airplanes. Airplanes are uncomfortable places, and people take what small indulgences they can when on them. That goes double when you are discussing children. People on planes are very intolerant of the normal noises and movements that children make, so it is important to keep one's children as silent and immobile on planes as possible. The only times my toddler has watched a movie or had extended iPad time were on a plane. I'd hate for someone to judge my parenting solely on what my child gets to do on an airplane.

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