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academic skim-reading

March 7, 2001: This message was distributed by Papyrus News. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For info on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see <>.

I apparently caused a few chuckles the other day with my message about the two interesting books I had just read. One colleague mentioned that it takes him two months to read a book, not two hours.

This brings up a point, which I thought to mention in that message, but I'll instead mention now--that there is a certain kind of "reading" that's probably a good skill for most academics. It's not the only type of reading that needed, but it's one that I've found quite helpful.

The idea--and this is certainly something that's been discussed by others, including Phil Agre--is that there is value in knowing the main points of a book, and knowing where to go back in the book for a more detailed look, without having to do a slow sentence by sentence read. Perhaps this is what people used to call speed reading when I was growing up--I don't know--but it may not be as thorough as speed reading, since it doesn't necessarily entail reading every sentence. On the other hand, though, it is more thorough than what is usually thought of as skimming. It means reading some passages or parts carefully, skimming through others, and maybe even skipping parts that are of peripheral interest. After I "read" a book like that, I can usually say pretty clearly what the main points are (which perhaps could also be done by just reading the cover or the introduction and conclusion). But, more importantly, I have a mental image of what's in the book, so that I can go back and find more details later on at the point of need. So, for example, if I am later writing an article related to social capital, I know where to go back in Robert Putnam's book to refer to a particular idea or data set or reference. (Some people might keep track of these things by taking notes. I'm not too good at that so I usually just keep things in my head. Whatever works.)

There's a broader question as to whether this type of reading has gained new importance in "the age of information." Does the rapid diffusion of new knowledge in so many fields, and the blurring of so many traditional disciplines, make this kind of skim-reading more valuable than in the past? Does this type of reading match well with the kinds of fast reading and skimming often done in electronic environments? Is reading, and thinking, cheapened if this kind of skim-reading becomes more prominent than "deep" reading? I don't know the answers, but here are some references for people who address these issues. Jay Bolter (1991, 1996) takes a realist (and historical) look of new writing and reading, Myron Tuman (1992) an ambiguous critical look, and Sven Birkets (1994) offers a harsh critique.

Mark Warschauer


Bolter, J. D. (1991). Writing space: The computer, hypertext, and the history of writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bolter, J. D. (1996). Ekphrasis, virtual reality, and the future of writing. In G. Nunberg (Ed.), The future of the book (pp. 253-272). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tuman, M. (1992). Word perfect: Literacy in the computer age. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Birkerts, S. (1994). The Gutenberg elegies: The fate of reading in an electronic age. Boston: Faber and Faber.

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Last updated: March 9, 2001 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0