Posts Tagged ‘skimming’

To skim or not to skim

10 February 2009

Nicholas Carr, in his article Is Google Making Us Stupid?, quotes Bruce Friedman as saying “I can’t read War and Peace any more . . . Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

War and Peace may well be essential reading, and a touchstone for the modern novel, but it has 1296 densely packed pages and I’ve already read it once. I’m not a fast reader, I can’t skim a novel because I’ll miss something and lose track of what’s going on. 50 pages can easily take me an hour or more, so War and Peace would take me some 26 hours to read. I rarely read for more than an hour a day, often much less, so I’d need the best part of a month, or more likely two. It may be sad but I’m coming to the conclusion that I may well never re-read it.

I reach that conclusion because every day I am, consciously or not, making decisions about what I should do with my time. In fact you could see my life as an exercise in Time and Motion Studies, repeated day after day after day, morning, afternoon and evening. What shall I do today? Shall I read or watch TV? Shall I make music or dance, socialise or play sport? Talk to my family or slip away to my computer and edit photos or movies? Go for a walk or go to work? Even, maybe, write a blog post? And how long for? And with what level of concentration? Decisions, decisions.

I may well do several of these things on any one day, I may even on occasion multitask (though not often, and not for long), but given that I also have to cook, do housework, eat and sleep, I am unlikely to have time to do them all. So I have to adopt strategies that enable me to do enough of as many of the things I want to do to keep myself reasonably happy.

Skimming is a strategy we all use before embarking on any extensive act of reading, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. If I am deciding whether to read War and Peace – or any other novel – I’ll look at the back cover to see if there’s a synopsis, or any quotes from reviews; I’ll look at the chapter headings, skim one or two chapters, flick through the book reading the first sentence or two of a paragraph here or there. I’ll also check how long it is. That’s quite clearly not ‘reading War and Peace’; it’s the process of deciding whether to read it.

I’ll do something similar with a non-fiction book, a newspaper, a magazine, or a blog post, or an online forum – any piece of more or less extensive writing. I do it all the time, and it’s very useful because at every step of the way it helps me decide how to spend my time.

What Friedman is describing is the process of deciding not to read a blog post. He, like the rest of us, probably only has 24 hours at his disposal in an average day, and probably wants to spend them in the best way he can. He shouldn’t feel guilty at not reading through to the end of every blog post he comes across. It’s normal.

I bet he doesn’t make it through to the end of this one.

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