It’s not how fast you read, it’s the distractions


Image Copyright Moyan Brenn

Recently, new research emerged saying we don’t read things online, we skim them.

From an article in the Washington Post:

Humans, (cognitive neuroscientists) warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

The Post story talks with a woman who agrees that the digital plethora of content out there means she finds herself skimming content, then if nothing interests her moving on to the next link, the next story, her next fix.

Now, researchers and word lovers alike are asking us to go to a “slow-read” movement, whereby we take the time to invest ourselves in what we’re reading, and get lost in it the way we used to. After all, skimming a novel for enjoyment is one thing, but what does it mean to a generation of kids who have to read and comprehend what they are reading in order to get their education?

I can’t say I’m immune to skimming text. I’d say I’ve always been a skimmer. I’m a natural fast reader, and tend to be able to blow through a book in a couple of days. However, I also get distracted by the digital explosion of content all around me.

I moved from paper books to an e-reader back in 2010. I love my e-reader. I found I began reading more on it, than I ever did with paper books. Sure, I bought a lot of books, but many of them sat on my shelf unread. That wasn’t the case with my e-reader.

A year after receiving my Kindle, I bought myself an iPad. I thought it would make me more productive. I’d be able to read on it, and blog, as well as check my email, Facebook and Twitter, plus I could play Angry Birds. So much win.

But here’s the thing, I couldn’t read on my iPad. I tried, but I kept getting distracted. I’d start reading the book I was in the middle of, but then float over to Twitter to see what people were talking about. Then back to the book. But wait, didn’t my friend’s wedding pictures just get posted on Facebook? Oh right, the book. Then a notification flashed that I had a new email.

You get my drift.

My tablet soon fell out of favour with me. There were just too many distractions. I went back to my Kindle full-time. I preferred that it only let me do one thing — read.  I can’t say for sure that I’m comprehending more or less by reading e-books as opposed to paper books, but I am reading more.

However, when I’m on my computer, I tend to get distracted again. I’ll click on an article and read a line or two, then give up. Sometimes, I don’t even read a link that I retweet. I’ve also been guilty of commenting on an article when I haven’t read it. Shameful, I know.

But I think part of the reason for all of this is there is just so much content at our fingertips nowadays. Heck, 10 years ago, I couldn’t have even imagined reading an article in the Washington Post, let alone writing a blog post about it.

The Internet has caused disruption in many parts of our lives, but it has also opened us up to a world we may not otherwise have experienced. I love that I can read an article from the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. I love that thanks to social media, I can interact with the people who write the articles and blog posts I like.

I don’t know that a slow-reading movement is really going to make things all better here. I think it comes down to finding content you like, and spending the time with it that you like. After all, if you really like a novel, reading it slower is not going to make you like it anymore, or any less. Personally, I tend to read faster when a book has captured my imagination — and that’s not new to digital formats, it happened with print books back in the day, too.

So slow down your reading if you must, but I suggest you find a way to read where the distractions are minimal. That’s something that we also used to do with paper books.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to the novel I’m reading.

Image used above copyright Moyan Brenn on Flickr. Check out his blog here

  • Chantal

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve even switched to library books to avoid the perennial sidetrack that I end up with on my ipad.

    • Sarah

      interesting, Chantal. I went back to print library books to try to save a bit of money last year. I don’t know that I read them any slower, but they definitely weighed down my purse a lot more than my Kindle does! ;-)