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Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound (theguardian.com)
327 points by pmoriarty 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 211 comments

Did anyone else click through to the article and think: “okay, try not to skim the article about how bad skim-reading is!”?

I really like this article. It is aligning with very formless thoughts I have been having over the past year about the varying qualities of information and how it can affect your minds health. Much like a food diet, I have been thinking that it is wise to cultivate a healthy “information diet” in order to preserve good mental health.

Amid frustration with my degrading attention span last year, I swore off a lot of the social media things (Twitter, most of all) to see if I could regain the ability to actually get through some books. The results were quite astonishing in my case, I was able to crack through a few books and actually focus on side projects.

Unfortunately, I am not as optimistic as the writer here that we will be able to pull out of it. Much like modern society battles overweightness, diabetes and all kinds of ailments that stem from poor diet, I think we will suffer a similar fate when it comes to moderating our information intake.

I think it is not about your attention span degrading. It is a matter of adaptation to too many things competing for our attention, and the desire to consume all this information. (It is an interesting question as such as to actually why one has to consume all this)

There are advertorials, advertisements, tweets, news entries, status updates, articles, books, mailing lists, and everything in between.

Since there are too many things, one needs to prioritize. But to prioritize one has to understand the value: Is there anything new for me? Will it be entertaining? Will it be factual? Will it support my point of views? Will it challenge my point of views? Is it trustworthy? Is it plausible? Is there a hidden agenda? Is it propaganda? Whose points does it support? And so on.

And how to find out at least some of these without reading the entire text? Skim it!

Now, skimming usually gives enough information about the value. But when done deliberately, one can not only assess the value, but often get the main point(s) quickly too. (Call it "speed reading")

I've had (and still have) this same "problem", but I don't consider it a problem anymore. Skimming is good, but one has to be able to turn it off.

This is what I do: skim, for quick screening and early out to avoid wasting time. Then, if there's not much time available, speed read, do a 2nd and maybe 3rd pass of skimming.

If there's plenty of time and information seems worthwhile, then sit down and start reading as if there's nothing else you can do. Like you were stuck on a cottage without your phone/tablet and it rains outside -- reading is the only thing you can do without getting bored or going to sleep. (I don't know if you can relate to this idea, you can find your own memory with a similar idea)

Since I already know there is some value, it motivates me to go on.

Now, when it comes to fact books, I try not to read from cover to cover, but chapter to chapter and then re-evaluate. Fiction books are different, since it's usually for entertainment (and of course sometimes for interesting ideas).

So, I am optimistic that people will learn new strategies and not all hope is lost.

Forget the article, I skim read your comment.

I think much is to do with the format - reading on a small screen I feel I skim more than on a desktop monitor.

I imagine it has more to do with habits than anything.

On my desktop I'm very prone to skimming and eagerly multitasking, but any text on my phone has my full undivided attention.

Incidentally I've spent a lot of time reading books on my phone, while I do most of my web browsing at a desk.

I reread the comment on my desktop today, and found that I was highlighting the text as I read it, which helped me concentrate on the area

I’ve read your entire comment.

Why do you think your attention span is degrading? Think about it this way: if you are able to concentrate enough to watch a movie, there is nothing wrong with you and nothing is stopping you from deep reading, but maybe just too boring and uncompetitive text (uncompetitive with other content and other forms of content).

Most people find salad very boring and "uncompetitive" compared to ice cream or potato chips... but that's not the point. We need to keep our diets diverse and healthy, otherwise our lives degrade or end prematurely.

Hedonism is unsustainable... sometimes we simply need to do the healthy boring stuff. Do taxes, eat vegetables, exercise the mind and body. Ya know, adult 101.

Funny, while i can concentrate on reading, I don't have the patience to watch a Hollywood blockbuster without fast forwarding or multitasking any more. I'm guessing because they're so similar in mechanics (with different skins, which may distract you) that they're really not worth the time.

When you dumb things down, and shorten them you reach a larger audience.

Another factor to consider is that journalism is no longer attracting the quality of authors it used to, and that clickbait is the easiest way for online newspapers to make money.

There is some empirical research that our attention spans are degrading on average. I don't have any of it handy, but there's a great book I had to read back in high school called "The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr that goes into it.

I just finished reading it yesterday, amazing book! I came here to check somebody referenced it haha, it is exactly on this subject in its entirety.

I had to try very to read the article and not skim it.

I think you accidentally a word.

It's interesting, I feel like most of the time when someone leaves out a word in English it's the verb.

I saw that after posting. Left it as is to see if people will skim it or not.

Also, I am not a native English speaker. So most times as I formulate something in my mind, the speed difference between mind and hand causes me to miss words.

I repeat with my kids about this very concept like a broken record hundred times.

'Mental obesity' is as real as 'physical obesity'

> Much like modern society battles overweightness, diabetes and all kinds of ailments that stem from poor diet, I think we will suffer a similar fate when it comes to moderating our information intake.

I actually noticed (and then embraced) a recalcitrant inclination in myself, to explicitly skim-read the article to see whether it was worth it. So now that I did, here's a tl;dr: we've changed the way we read to more often do skim-reading, and the effect might be that we less fully understand the text we're reading and are hence less able to be critical of it.

So, is my tl;dr somewhat accurate?

I think this is good.

Reading and really understanding a text is not cognitively easy. It should be a privilege for a text to be read by me.

I am a productive and I work a lot with my head. I in my free time I listen to a lot of Audiobooks (fiction and factual) and I view that as the best vessel for taking in information in a causal way. If I really need to study something then I read it. But how dare you to think your text is important enough that I study it - especially in the age of click-bait and low quality journalism. If it is an extremely good text then I will recognize it as such by myself and study it.

I agree there's a lot of crap out there, but the point of the article is that even for text that is worth the effort, your ability to supply said effort will have been diminished by a lifetime habit of skim-reading. The ability to read deeply has to be exercised constantly. It cannot be turned on and off. The other thing is, will you still be able to recognize every text that is worth your time? These seem like worthy points to me.

I chronically skim read articles and emails, because people are generally very bad at writing those things. They will usually contain a lot more information that I don’t care about than information that I do care about.

But I also read about 1 book a week, and I don’t struggle to devote my full attention to them. I don’t think switching between skimming and comprehensive reading is the problem, I think it’s that if you never do comprehensive reading that you’ll struggle to get back into it.

Yeah, and that's the other problem this article is pointing at--young children aren't developing deep reading skills like you have, because the girls are getting waylaid by social media and the boys by video games. They won't have the option of skimming the bad shit and deep reading the good stuff.

It's a good point. Trying to reread some classic texts that I missed in a STEM curriculum, I've definitely noticed my attention is not what it used to be.

But, like anything: exercise creates ability. And so I try to keep plowing my way through.

Well said. News articles/editorials/blogs are especially bloated these days. It often not worth spending the mental effort when not a lot of mental effort was put into the writing.

Did you read the article? Your response has nothing to do with any of the points raised in the article.

Besides, how presumptuous is it to proclaim "how dare you to think your text is important enough that I study it"?

> Besides, how presumptuous is it to proclaim "how dare you to think your text is important enough that I study it"?

Not at all. I'm 30. I'm going to live to be 80 at best. I've only fifty years left. Fifty years of fifty weeks each. 2500 weeks of 7 days each. If I spend two hours reading every day, that's 35000 hours left. That's 70000 half-hour works.

Is this work in the top 70k that Man has ever written? That's the standard. I only have one life. And to me it is everything. What I read needs to be at the 99.999th percentile. Life's too short for anything else.

And yet you are chitchatting on HN instead of reading one of those top works.

Because those need attention. If I'm waiting for my Lyft to take me to my book club meeting, like I am right now, I only have three minutes. I can't use that to make any progress on Conjectures and Refutations.

So these things have poor cost structure for what they provide. I like The Economist on my morning fifteen min BART for instance. And that's because that's dense.

But if I have half an hour, that's enough for me to read something worthwhile instead of this stuff.

Again, that's not the point. That tirade has nothing to do with the article, it's just something you wanted to say.

And yet I think that is much more interesting and valuable then the article.

Maybe he skimmed it.

Skimming through bs was normal in pre-screen era, iirc, it is amount of texts that increased. We simply have no time to dive into yet another attention seeking writer’s subjective today.

Otoh, there are still texts that slow you down since ‘objective meaning’ per line ratio is damn high. The pace of reading naturally correlates with the quality of text as a medium of conceptions. If you’re short of interests, then skimming everything is not a primary problem. If you develop a protection against drowning in bs, it’s actually good, since it is not going anywhere.

Go back a century, and your "objective meaning" per line ratio goes down a significant bunch. Language has never be this condensed, and the number of words to convey an idea never this small. One of the problems in this, though, might be one of the ever-increasing over-simplification, over-abstraction and superficial impositions of meaning, where certain phrasings make a thing true just because this is the way young people would express it™... It's complicated.

I don’t know much about century old articles, but if you’re about classic books, then these were never concise. Good written, yes. But the usual writer’s syndrome is also there. What could be said in few sentences and links went as a book instead.

Look at this article. It tries to be narrative of an airport, kids and older people doing something in their seats. Is this relevant? Is it a cool story worth a ‘classics’ badge? It is just bs that is mimicking an observation report. This imaginary airport arguably was not even a source of author’s initial thought on topic.

Centuries — maybe. But I think that on the scale of decades the trend is still being more wordy and attention/seo seeking.

At least for journalism, this is a hot and increasingly pesky trend. It's the Ira Glass style:

"63 year old Barb Waterhouse puts the kettle on" ... sound of boiling water ... "and as I settle into a plush easy chair, i can see that the color of the leaves is changing" ... sounds of birds chirping ...

In what should be an article about urban planning. It's SO annoying and I can't be blamed for "skimming."

A centuries to millennia old style is hardly a trend.

> Good written


I'm reminded of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) which I tried to read recently and couldn't get through due to the writing. Here is one of the most highly "liked" quotes from GoodReads:

>> Soon after the completion of his college course, his whole nature was kindled into one intense and passionate effervescence of romantic passion. His hour came,—the hour that comes only once; his star rose in the horizon,—that star that rises so often in vain, to be remembered only as a thing of dreams; and it rose for him in vain. To drop the figure,—he saw and won the love of a high-minded and beautiful woman, in one of the northern states, and they were affianced. He returned south to make arrangements for their marriage, when, most unexpectedly, his letters were returned to him by mail, with a short note from her guardian, stating to him that ere this reached him the lady would be the wife of another. Stung to madness, he vainly hoped, as many another has done, to fling the whole thing from his heart by one desperate effort. Too proud to supplicate or seek explanation, he threw himself at once into a whirl of fashionable society, and in a fortnight from the time of the fatal letter was the accepted lover of the reigning belle of the season; and as soon as arrangements could be made, he became the husband of a fine figure, a pair of bright dark eyes, and a hundred thousand dollars; and, of course, everybody thought him a happy fellow.

What is it that bothers you with that quote? It seems fine to me.

So, how would you improve it?

In all likelihood the author was asked to write 1200 words to promote her book.

Maryanne Wolf is the author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World

So I guess the article is supposed to pique your interest sufficiently to then go buy the book. I'm going to side with you here though, the majority of the book could probably be condensed to <2000 words. And anyway, the contract to publish the book probably came with a word count requirement: give me 50,000 words and we'll publish it.

Please provide actual examples.

A century ago newspapers were under incredibly tight constraints. Printing and typesetting was an expensive and non-trivial process so article length was severely constrained. And because printing took so long it required articles to be written and edited on a very demanding schedule. As to magazines and books, that's an entirely different matter.

Indeed, Newspapers - printing in general - were definitely driving the condensation of language.

The most telling example I once started to read in German and sooner or later gave up on was this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simplicius_Simplicissimus

Written 1668, it's written in a style that put a lot of long words after each other in a way that makes it hard to decipher to day. I had to follow a few obscure rules to understand things, one being not to start to try make sense of a sentence before reading up to the period. Towards the end, the wording was often upended completely by whatever additional constructs with which the author closed sentences. It isn't really because the individual words have become much different, but our use of language really shifted.

I'm fairly involved with creating or having created various materials for people who might be interested in buying our products. Even in the past 10 years or so, we've shifted to shorter pieces, survey results presented in the form of slides rather than words, short videos, etc. It's definitely more about things you can share on social media that people will glance through for a minute or two rather than carefully read on a plane.

Is your market larger than it was 10 years ago?

Yes, but I'm not sure I see a direct correlation. Materials created 10 years ago were presumably appropriate for the marketing at the time. I think a lot of what companies create today would be viewed as too short and fluffy if you go back in time. (And doubtless for some audiences today, they are.)

Styles and preferences change. Look at the information density of ads as you go back in time.

> Otoh, there are still texts that slow you down since ‘objective meaning’ per line ratio is damn high. The pace of reading naturally correlates with the quality of text as a medium of conceptions.

I remember this from about 2000 with respect to newspapers.

I was flying to Canada and bought a newspaper as is my wont when flying.

Of course, I had the newspaper pretty much finished within about a half hour to and hour after takeoff.

And then I bought a Canadian newspaper, and noticed that it took me almost 3 hours to finish it off.

It was quite amazing how much more sophisticated just the vocabulary was in the Canadian newspaper.

I’ve found that much high-brow literature (such as that found in The Atlantic which I like to read a lot) enjoys taking multiple sentences and paragraphs to explain an idea that only needs 10% of the words that are actually used. AKA fluff to give the appearance of intellectualism. It’s why I skim.

There is the trend on so many articles linked from HN to not get to the point until 8+ paragraphs in. They don't even reference the headline and the main point.

Then when the address the point briefly they flashback to the subject's childhood and talk about some formative event that shaped everything to put him into the place where he might take on this problem.

I skim because I trust very few sources to actually deliver on the promise of a headline and I don't care to invest a page or two reading before the article actually starts and I can make a judgement.

> I don't care to invest

I think this gets to the core of it.

When we're bombarded headlines from hundreds, if not thousands, of articles in a day, how do you know which ones are worth investing your time in?

This is a question worth answering, because many many people are investing their time mostly in headlines, and skim reading. Which means they never get depth, which has obvious negative consequences.

This is not just a question that we should answer individually, but as a society. There is a real cost to disproportionate amounts of headline surfing and skim reading.


I have spent a good amount of time writing and editing professionally. The absolute worst writing happens when someone believes they are owed attention simply because they wrote something.

The gall! Maybe people would skim less if so many writers weren't cramming tomes down our throats to serve their own interests.

Even then, skimming is a fundamental reading skill and I simply cannot imagine how ignorant I would be if I never did it.

I really don't even mind tons of extra words. It just seems to be some new style (last 10 years especially) that deliberately avoids touching on the theme as long as possible. Also hard-jumping away from the theme frequently to tell other stories. It's beyond digression or elaboration IMO.

And that's when Steven realized what had been causing the illness in tens of thousands of people for over a decade...

- - -

Two poplar trees stood in the backyard of the house where Steven was born in 1958. Not so much a "back yard" as a "back lawn", one of the trees, nearly 200 years old...

Is this a real article or just brilliant satire?

Seems to be some excellent satire, Google shows this page as the only result for the phrase

I just made it up.

This is what I'm talking about.

I almost reflexively closed the tab just from reading this comment.

Someone should make a well-being app that forces you to get up from your computer by displaying enraging text snippets in a modal, with no close button, for 15 minutes.

Oh Lord yes! I'm totally with you. That's a whole separate tier of Hell.

I think they're either chasing gamified time-on page metrics, or are just deeply conceited. Whenever that happens to me I consider myself pranked by the writer.

This is the problem. Low quality journalism and lack of trust.

How do you know if this article is actually good and worth your time? You don't, and the last 20 articles you read are crap. In fact modern journalism is so bad, that once in a week I'll come across a real article, well-structured, providing good background, written by a knowledgeable individual that understands the subject, and oh my, the difference is incredible. I had forgotten journalism can be that good. You know, actually useful.

The way to fix is is to financially support good journalism. It's not easy (there isn't a good system built for this, how many subscriptions can you really pay for?) but it's definitely possible.

> How do you know if this article is actually good

By author's name. The problem is, even on sites, where you can subscribe to not the whole site, but particular section, you usually cannot subscribe to particular author.

Then Twitter provides a way to do it. Find the author at Twitter, and subscribe - usually he or she will be announce there every publication he or she made - you can even trivially gate his or her tweets with links to RSS if you wish, using Twitter groups and IFTT.

By the way, if you want to support the author, using Tweeter you can do this too - likes and retweets are valuable and to promote good author among your subscribers is good for everyone.

The problem is authors don't tweet links on their own works only, more often than not they tweet links on many other things, and more often than not, you are not interested in the everything the author read or discuss, but only in his or her journalist works. Technically it's possible to filter this by parsing the pages from author tweet links, and find there his or her name.

In a traditional magazine, those stories would be in a sidebar or as minor articles on the same spread. The web isn’t conducive to this sort of multiple text flows presented together, so they’re being shoved into the main body of the article. Hopefully we’ll end up with some sort of compromise between these two, but it will take years of experimenting with this new format before the publishing industry really figures out the right solution.

I think a lot of fluff is because the publishers require the writers to have a minimum number of words.

Same seems to be with books. Most books I see are almost around the same thickness and size which might mean the publisher has some influence on the length of the texts.

For what it’s worth, I had one of those make the front page a couple of months ago. I did a big background explanation lead in (that several people commented wasn’t necessary) mainly because I wanted to establish a bit of a “right to have an opinion” on the subject.

Might not have been necessary but I felt like I needed to do it.

When a headline makes a big big biig case, and the body of the text doesn't immediately starts with the smoking gun, then I feel cheated. Sure, background and setting are important, but epistemically they gives us almost nothing.

A bio can be handy for that.

post hoc "right to have an opinion" blurbs probably work equally well.

This article in particular doesn't seem like a good example of your generalisation. No ridiculous childhood flashback, and the headline is a facet of the main point expressed in the first paragraph.

I was saying that I start skimming to see if I'm in one of those articles.

This comment hits the nail on the head for me. I’m mostly a non-fiction reader and so many authors dance around their point or reiterate it over and over. Robert Greene is the first offender to come to mind for me but I’m also reading Sapiens and feel the same there. If anyone has any low-fluff book recommendations I’d love to hear them!


You only really grasp a point when you hear it many times, and see it applied (or even better apply it yourself).

There is this online service selling summarised versions of popular books. I’ve read many of those summaries, and undoubtedly the key points are all contained in there. But: you read it, and then you forget.

The complete book takes time to lay out the key points and arguments, puts them in context, explains various aspects, gives many examples, challenges you to apply them, and, yes, repeats them. And that’s what you need to actually take them on board. It’s a whole web of beliefs.

As an extreme example: you could give the basic definitions and axioms of, say, group theory on one page, and say “the rest follows”. No fluff. But somebody that’s only read that page has no idea about group theory. For that you need the book, with fluff.

Reiterating and showing from different angles and in various contexts = good.

Not getting to the point, or giving relevant context and precursor ideas, while dwelling on unrelated subjects = fluff.

I like my non-fiction the way I like science articles: starting with a summary, and diving into all necessary details later.

Technical writing must be this way.

However using poetic language in writing that's trying to communicate scientific understanding to everyone, I find, is useful and appropriate. Look at Carl Sagan's popular writings, or some of Asimov's more science related works for good examples.

> There is this online service selling summarised versions of popular books.

It's blinkist

The one I had in mind was getAbstract.

NN Taleb’s books. He has said that books should surprise the reader every single page or else it’s not real writing.

I read parts of a couple of Taleb’s books, Black Swan and Antifragile. There are a few original ideas in each and then they are reapplied again and again in different domains.

I often get how the applications go after reading the section titles, thus I think it can still be more concise. That said, the two books have much better signal-to-noise ratio than some high-brow journalistic pieces.

I found the black swan to be 80% fluff. Still a worthwhile reading, though.

Black Swan could have been a pretty good book at 15% of it's current size. I got tired of being told the same thing in at least 5-6 different ways every time and never finished it.

Could not tolerate. I read hundreds of nonfiction books, and this is one of the few I could not get through.

I found it worth the struggle in the end. One of the most influential books in my life, I’d probably put it as #3.

> NN Taleb’s books

Quite the opposite. He expands one single argument ad nauseum into each of his books.

It's exasperating.

which single argument?

Each book has a different one.

And they are?

> Black Swan

Fat tailed probability distributions are fat tailed...! Assuming normal distribution underestimates risky events.


> and Antifragile

Simple complex systems are too complex to be simple enough ...!

Okay, so this is a bit more technical, but the important thing is that unintelligent systems (= they are simple) that are complex (= have complex dynamics) are bad at adapting to different circumstances.

Also, these systems are products of design trade offs. (We want things to be cheap and get done fast, and also politically okay, and so on.) And thus they are not robust enough, nor resilient enough. They are fragile. (Taleb laments a lot about how antifragiltiy is different from robustness and resilience. And sure, they are because he uses a model in which they are.)

And the book talks about what is needed for anti-fragility, and it turns out that some kind of feedback loop that optimizes for certain problems. Or of course intelligence.

The core point you missed in antifragile is inference in the presence of uncertainty - a conservative barbell like strategy (80-20 rule or 90-10 rule). This is very easy to overlook but this to me was the key takeaway - in structuring a portfolio, picking art projects etc.

I left it out, because I'm not convinced it works. For example it doesn't respond well to shocks. The whole market goes down. Your portfolio shrinks. (Sure, probably it can be structured as a semi-passive fund, that buys when the market is low, and moves back to more doomsday assets when it starts to fall.)

Could you give an example of this please?

As an example, what sort of portfolio should you set up for your money. Taleb's recommendation is to avoid all kinds of "risk-modeling" and to invest 80 - 90% in highly conservative investments and the remaining 10% in ultra risky ones. He calls this a barbell investment. Positive black swan events from the ultra risky bets will still get you a nice return and the negative black swan events won't wipe you out.

The barbell strategy is applied to a lot more domains throughout the book - a small excerpt: https://www.nuggetsofthought.com/2018/04/02/nassim-taleb-sen...

Thank you.

I couldn't have explained it better.

> Fooled by randomness.

Selection / survivorship bias

Taleb has often been accused of lacking rigor in his arguments. He does write well, though.

Repetition of the core concepts from multiple different angles is a great way to reiterate the lessons over and over.

I also don’t like when they beat around the bush, but repetition increases retention.

The classic form is 1) summarize what you're going to say; 2) say it; and 3) summarize and discuss what you've said. But this piece repeats the same arguments, in different words, just a few paragraphs apart. And that annoys me. But maybe it's written for people who just skim.

Also, when reading nonfiction, I typically read the beginning and the end, and then skim the rest. If it seems worth the time, then I read the whole thing.

>I typically read the beginning and the end, and then skim the rest. If it seems worth the time, then I read the whole thing.

I saw this advice for reading papers, and it has been extremely useful to me for deciding if something is worth reading. For whatever reason though, I have some kind of aversion to doing it with books. Some form of childhood engrained "eat your vegetables" kind of conditioning about finishing books cover to cover.

I should really try it though. I've slogged through many non-fiction books with little beside annoyance to show for it.

Is the counter-swing of low-fluff incomprehensible density?

I think if you want to avoid fluff, read something that was written more than 20 years ago. Time has a means of eroding away the pop-sci books (Will anyone read Gladwell in 20 years?). I personally like reading the pivotal pieces of a field / founding texts. Jung and Nietzsche come to mind.

Maybe another question you could ask (a fluff test if you will): Could you see a college course using the text as a primary source?

>I think if you want to avoid fluff, read something that was written more than 20 years ago. Time has a means of eroding away the pop-sci books (Will anyone read Gladwell in 20 years?). I personally like reading the pivotal pieces of a field / founding texts. Jung and Nietzsche come to mind.

Historical philosophers are not even remotely comparable to present-day popular authors, a more fair comparison would be to present-day philosophers. Present-day popular authors are best compared to old popular authors, like the ones who wrote books on manners for 1800s Americans who wanted to use their affluence to become more like old-world elites, or the 1950s authors that wrote manuals on how to "be a man."

Even if we stick to fluffier stuff, if it's been around for a while it's probably got some merits (for instance, Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler are not exactly challenging authors, but they're really good at what they do).

FWIW, I’d consider both authors you cite peddlers of mistaken (and potentially dangerous) ideas. Read early psychoanalysis and German idealism out of historical interest, by all means (certainly very influential), but please don’t appropriate that way of thinking.

If you want low fluff non fiction, go for business books. They're often short and to the point because they're written for busy people and aim to convey real information.

A lot of for-the-masses nonfiction books suffer from the incentives problem. They're not selling information, they're selling the feeling of being smart, intellectual, and well informed. They don't aim to teach you anything, they aim to give you ammunition to impress your friends with at a dinner party.

As such they have to be large and voluminous so you can feel good about yourself just by buying them. Then they have to convey the core point in the first 30 pages because you're not going to read more than that probably. The rest is there to give you cool anecdotes and supporting arguments so you can impress your friends further should they probe (and you actually read that far).

What? This is the opposite of my experience, every business book I've read has mostly consisted of bullet-point platitudes. Short doesn't mean informative.

Do you have recommendations that might be different?

The Personal MBA, Josh Kauffman

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz

Can't speak for The Atlantic, but I think The Economist qualifies as "high-brow" and pretty dang information-dense. Just reading and remembering like 30% of the articles gets me far.

At this point I just read the weekly (print) issue and only go deeper on things that interest me. I am of course missing things, but it's been much less stressful and more informative than skimming the NYT every morning.

Another benefit to reading a weekly news source versus a daily is that the average quality is higher, since the most important N stories in a week are going to be a better overall sample than the most important N/7 stories each day integrated over the same week.

The Economist also has great round-the-world coverage, which is more than can be said for most news sources.

Couldn’t agree more. Read books and The Economist, skip the dailies.

The Economist is definitely a high-brow, low-fluff, high-density publication. I love it. Articles are usually short enough that you can get through them in a just a minute and they have a good graphics department that makes clear, readable graphs that actually provide an added value instead of filling in some empty space. Shows that it is possible to stick to the message.

For political reporting it seems like Politico is sticking to the same formula (at least Politico.eu), which explains their popularity.

Their writing style is also great, it feels very British: slightly sarcastic and with lots of clever puns.

Google incentivizes all kinds of online content to engage in this behavior as well. Articles that rank well are long and filled with keyword-rich exposition. Concise, bulleted summaries of facts don't give Googlebot as much information and consequently tend to show up in fewer searches. (And Google is trying to be your main source for fact lookup anyway)

Also, why recipe sites are among the most annoying on the internet.

Life story with a hidden recipe injected somewhere on the body

That is currently one of the things that annoys me the most.

Well, probably a toss up between that, and breaking out a recipe over a 10 page slideshow.

Why would unrelated information make a recipe rank higher for "chicken recipe"?

In my opinion, if a book doesn't deserve close reading it likely doesn't deserve reading at all. I'll make an exception for purely informational texts, I suppose, but for the most part if I've chosen a book-length work I'm looking for something engaging, not something to skim.

Why texts are so long these days

When I was a child, my father and I would go fishing in summer. In summer, the fish feed on all the insects that ...

54 pages of unrelated anecdotes later

Irrespective of whether or not you think texts are too long these days, what's clear is that both long and short texts are here to stay.

Fucking brilliant, mate. Five stars. Good show. And then people will link this nonsense everywhere. The question posed will not be answered, the writer will have performed some puerile creative writing exercise, and you'll be left wondering why you bother reading this stuff.

Which days are "these days"?

Do you remember serials?


Haha, sorry, that was a fictional title for the fictional story I have there. I would probably hate 98% of serials. Fortunately, time has winnowed the set down to the good ones.

Sometimes I'll skip just to see if the article's worth reading and go back and read it for real if it seems to be.

Sometimes I'll just skim because, as you say, a lot of articles take forever to get to the point. Reading the first sentence of each paragraph seems to work well.

There are a lot of reason we skim, some good and some bad. The nature of articles, etc., on the Internet encourages skimming. It's like reading the newspaper used to be, except the newspaper is a million times larger and of much more uneven quality.

I read fewer books than I did 30 years ago before I was regularly online, but probably read as much, or more. Of course, a lot of what I read is fluff or crap (or both), which concerns me, but oftentimes comment sections can be informative and insightful.

The majority (2/3) of the piece is evidence to back up an idea. This includes a grouchy anecdote, along with 4 or 5 studies linking screen reading to reduced comprehension, empathy, and critical thought.

I didn't find the evidence in the article compelling. But I'm glad it was there and don't think it was fluff.

Lot of journalists/reporters are still trained and required to write stories such that it fills X pages. This could have been necessity on print media but its outrageous on electronic screens. My hypothesis is that people skim on electronic screens more because there is always something else available if current piece is on some word count rampage. This article itself is so fluffy and the reporter could have explained core idea and results in one paragraph but instead they like to play this game where reader must spend a lot of time and attention before secret is revealed.

I enjoy the writing in The Atlantic precisely because of the use of language there. That 'fluff' is what makes it interesting and entertaining. If I wanted to just have an idea explained I'd read Wikipedia.

On the other hand, that's probably a good sign you should select your inputs more carefully. Try reading some time tested classics or a bunch of books that you know have a great signal-to-noise ratio. You'll probably find your noise ignorer starved soon enough.

In some (most?) cases those 10% of the words that are actually used are not the same for all readers. What is fluff to you may not be to me. When it comes to be sure to be understood many express the same idea in multiple ways (discourse levels) consecutively.

Many (most? at the very least "more and more") consumers buy printed matter "by weight", they somewhat "score" by dividing the number of pages by the price. It may be considered adequate for entertainment material, and may be adopted (for many/all types of goods) because it is our standard way of scoring goods. AFAIK there is no well-known generic method to a priori appreciate whether a good is adequate (adequacy being a part of "quality", which is always hard to evaluate).

It's quantity/quality, all over again. Only the former seems absolute to us, and a good scoring method delivers an absolute result.

IMHO there is a way to pepper a text with anecdotes/useless details, or even to structure it thanks to them, which gained traction in US newspaper material and now seems pervasive to me (thanks to our "global culture"?). It may sometimes be used as a trick to give life or credibility (fake news ahead! Liars tend to pile details up) to a story, or to appeal to some readers' empathy ("Wow, he uses a kettle pot similar to mine, so we are similar!").

A perfect thing "lacks nothing and nothing can be added" (Vitruvius). Aiming at perfection slows the building process, and most written material sold is short-lived ("long tail"). For a publishing company the editorial process (<=> refining contents by adding what is missing and also cutting fluff, in an often painful and always lengthy back-and-forth between the author and an editor) leads to more loss (an enraged author quits) and time-to-market (competing products are first on the market). Paying the author according to the amount of written material he produces simplifies.

It's "good enough" and "on time", all over again.

A piece of text without repetition and rephrasing will only content the focused reader. Misread or misunderstand something and you are lost. Focused people are rare (and may even be more and more so), and even them often cannot read continuously in a proper (calm) environment for a long time. Therefore nearly all of us always skim. Most products are not completely devoid of contents, therefore upon skimming one will probably find some material interesting him, albeit skimming over dense material leads to a total failure.

Theoretically footnotes and the hypertext approach may alleviate part of this, but many readers just get lost in those links.

Definitely so: but you're missing something too. I've found that STEM grads and philosophers often take this point of view, perhaps because they find nuanced arguments challenging or redundant: they see no value in the telling itself, in indirection or deliberate ambiguity.

A philosopher friend of mine, for example, refuses to read novels because he claims the basic propositions of most fiction can be more concisely expressed. Why read a whole book to learn that love is hard? This is true: his loss.

Most philosophers I know are perfectly happy reading books.

Most non-fiction too. Frequently it’s one idea dumbed down and then stretched to a couple hundred pages.

I think the main point made by the author is that we should _be able to_ read properly and consciously make the decision to do so for some texts. I don't think anyone would argue that we should carefully read every single shallow, poorly written blog post out there.

"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."

The article claims:

> English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts.

Nothing new here, surely? I'd hazard a guess a huge majority of people, throughout eternity, will never read 19th and 20th century literature, myself included. Unless we come up with some way of uploading books directly to our conscious awareness or whatever.

Project Gutenberg was founded in 1971, and as of June 23rd 2018 contains over 57,000 books. If we ignore for a minute all of the online book stores where one can go to buy books, and how well some of those stores are doing, then Project Gutenberg alone has probably done more for reading than we may have lost due to swipe-and-skim reading. How many of us have bought and pirated more eBooks than we've read paper books.

I work with tradesmen. I've asked so many of them "read any good books lately?" and they typically reply with something like "books? fuck off, I'm not gay". Seriously. But even the majority of these people, especially those under about 35 years old, are, in their spare time, reading constantly. Okay, so they're skim reading non-sense on Pinstabookwittertube, or whatever the kids are into this five-minute-period. I can't keep up, must be getting old, get off my lawn, etc. etc. I'd say that's still a huge improvement over the nothing similar cohorts were reading a decade a go. I'm still convinced some of the older guys can barely read well enough to get through their every day lives.

And, generally speaking, I'm skeptical of most 'The Sky Is Falling: Younger People Are Worse at X (And Y and Z and A and B ...' positions, for all the obvious reasons.

Yes, the kids have always been delinquent:

“Young people are so pampered nowadays that they have forgotten that there was such a thing as Rhetoric"

Aristotle, 4th Century BC

Maybe it's just because I read a lot of books and have been doing so for many years (I'm 45, so I've been reading a long time), but I don't feel like I've lost the ability to focus on reading. I still frequently pick up an interesting novel and read it in one or two sittings. A new novel by one of my favorite authors (say, Daniel Silva or David Baldacci) I'm quite likely to sit down and read in one single 8 hour session.

OTOH, what I do absolutely struggle with is watching video content. I think it's largely to do with the fact that I consume most of my video content on my laptop, so the lure of another browser tab (with, say, Hacker News or Reddit) is always there. I'll start watching a ~30 minute episode of "The IT Crowd" and it'll take me 90 minutes to watch it because I'm obsessively hitting "pause" every couple of minutes to check my email, check HN, etc. :-(

The underlying problem is not readers, but writers. Writers being underpaid because of the present economics of text.

Sorry to write such a long article, I didn't have time to write a short one. - Cicero, Pascal, Twain, etc.

I don't know if it's always laziness or time constraints which stop people from condensing their thoughts more. Fluffy articles remind me of when I wrote essays in school: I made them as long as possible because I thought longer = more important, even if the information density reduced as a result. Fluffy articles often remind me of that mindset, except there are no marks for effort on the internet, only originality.

"present" with a citation to Cicero, ironic.

They weren't connecting Cicero with present writing.

Care to elaborate for the ignorant masses?

I agree with @gurumeditations who made a comment about how much padding / fluff articles tend to have in them and that for the majority of online articles it's more of an annoyance than anything that adds to the content.

Personally, I can't skim read - I've never been able to. I've always have to read word by word which can really affect my reading speed. This I've learnt over the years has had both positive and negatives as you might imagine.

In school it was a big negative, if something didn't hold my interest - bugger it - I wasn't going to waste my time and would get in trouble, but if it was interesting to me I'd spend the time and generally understand the content very well. In later life I've found myself to rely on article summaries to decide if I need to read the full source or not.

Reading a novel takes me a lot longer (say 2-4 weeks) than say my Grandfather who in his 90s smashes out 4-5 novels a week with great ease and while still leading a busy life, however he was saying to me that whenever he skim reads he knows he doesn't taken in as much information from the text and for him it's more about enjoyment of reading 'in the moment' rather than post-reading pondering of the book which I tend to do a lot more of.

Personally I find reading books on an e-ink screen a _lot_ quicker than an LCD screen like my iPad Pro and a still a little quicker than reading a physical book probably down to page turns and object weight.

Life is short and there is very little written word that deserves the amount of your time that the author wants to take.

Don't let them guilt you into it.

The point is that you’ll be unable to deeply read even the “very little” that’s worth your time. Because we never practice it.

Sure we do. Most reading is really a form of search and then we re-read the stuff that seems important. (At least I do.)

If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.

― Oscar Wilde

A related skill on the wane is listening.

A barometer of this in the UK is Radio 4 - the BBC's 'speech only' service. Nowadays there are plenty of listeners but they are stuck in their cars on some silly commute and needing to pass the time as they shuffle through fumes, therefore this new audience is only getting the government's version of 'news', not the full Radio 4 experience.

This audience doesn't tend to tune in to Radio 4 at other times to listen to stories, documentaries, 'Woman's Hour' and the other delights of Radio 4, when back at the ranch there is TV and the world of digital delights for ambient entertainment.

You can do stuff whilst listening to Radio 4 style speech radio (not to be confused with 'talk radio'), however I don't think many people do that these days or have the skills to patiently do so. I wonder how low the critical mass of listeners has to get before 'Radio 4' loses relevance and is no longer something that can be discussed in 'the shires'.

But there is perhaps a growing number of people who listen to podcasts instead. I listen to podcasts in my car either via the car's own system (Tesla S) or using my mobile via Bluetooth.

I think one of the problem is we try to know too many things but nothing well enough.

We have access to infinite amount of "snippet" information. We want an "answer", now, and not the reason of how and why we arrived at those answer in the first place. Lots of people searching for just an "answers" and not thinking, and we end up in a world where we have far easier access of information than any other period in human history and our time to think and learn has been taken up by social media and other easy access entertainment.

Another problem of long reading is the quality of writing has degraded over the years. Or may be we have far too many information so the average or median quality are lowered.

The last great pieces of long Tech article i enjoyed were written by Anand lal shimpi, founder of Anandtech, but he left the site and went to work for Apple.

I don't think it's the quality of writing that has degraded, but rather the democratization of writing. Now everyone can write and make their thoughts known and it's not unreasonable to conclude that much of it will be chaff. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but it does place a heavier burden on the reader to be more critical of the avenues through which they consume information & content. Curation is, I've found, a difficult process.

Everyone that writes on the internet seems to assume everyone in their audience spends too much time on the internet. I know plenty of people totally outside this weird circle jerking ADD-ish skimming internet addict sphere who manage life just fine and has zero problem reading texts deeply without skimming. Just don't get stuck with the idea you also have to have bad habits just because everyone else has them (or that it's thus ok to have them).

I've been studying Spanish to a medium-to-high intermediate level, and I find skimming something in Spanish to be very difficult. This is probably because my reading speed can average 1/10th of it would be in English (depending on the difficulty).

I think we take for granted the ability to skim an article in our native language. When we skim, our brain is probably taking advantage of so many fast "pattern recognizers" and models to make sense of the whole, sampled in parts.

Perhaps skimming effectively like "being able to go to a comedy show in that language and actually laugh" is a true test of language proficiency.

My Spanish teacher who is pretty competent with English agrees that skimming is something that she cannot just do either.

English is not my mother tongue, but I can skim it easily, maybe not easily than my native German.

A lot might also be about writing style: English has developed a very anecdote/story- heavy style. Try to find an article by an author with English as mother tongue - they breast universally use this approach. E.g. article about tax law starts with one story, article about politics goes in depth on some specific scene or encounter, etc etc. There is often much mention of 'unimportant' detail that fill the mental picture, and English language media often repeat and stretch out information (rather than strive for information density). In comparison of DE-EN-FR I even find this in more in-depth documents like textbooks, not universally but much more than in the other languages.

Of course fluency plays a major role. But i can skim a french-language fluff piece or story or recounting of an event, even if that's not exactly a strong language for me. At the same time I can't skim an in-depth description of this or that political conflict or technical report in EN or DE if I want to understand the course of events or details. So it's at least to some degree (at least for me) a matter of the writing style - stories read easily, and non- English media is much less story-heavy. For an English native you might be able to compare yourself skimming an Economist article or something academic vs e.g. guardian or independent and see if it feels different.

In a twist, I find it sometimes harder to read a FR language fluff piece closely/carefully - they tend to use words that are more slang/informal and which i won't know as well how to interpret them in the context. But getting the gist of easy. This might be particular to foreign language reading though.

Interesting. I think you are discounting your talent for skimming in any language though :)


Jakob Nielsen was making this observation ages ago with regard to Web pages.

I think it's a bit of a mistake to lump reading books on a Kindle in with checking e-mails on an iPad (at least assuming we mean the e-ink version); the former is much less task-oriented than the latter and I find I'm actually reading many more long and challenging books on the Kindle than I used to. Though of course I can't really explain why the students in the study mentioned had so much worse results.

I don't buy that this has anything to do with the rise of the 'digital world'. The unfortunate reality is that adult literacy statistics are scary. A huge number of adults just aren't capable of understanding more than the most basic writing. See NAAL (https://nces.ed.gov/naal/) and PIAAC (https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/) data.

I’ve been reading a lot more poetry lately. One thing I like about it is that it directs focus very intensely but the works are small. You only need to bring one page worth of focus at a time.

Poetry can be longform, too. A single poem can range over several pages or even extend to book length.

I think this just reflect that a lot of the writing available on the internet is just really bad now, it's not like readers are in a rush to get to the clickbait articles at the bottom of the page. I can't recall the last time I read an article that did not have a significant grammatical error in it. This sentence contain two as for example.

If an article doesn't immediately support the article's headline then people are going to skim until they find information supporting or refuting the headline.

It was very hard for me not to skim this article but I forced myself to read every sentence and below is virtually all of its information content. Rest of the article just keeps repeating these same points over and over.

- Reading ability required development of new brain circuits about 6000 years ago

- This circuit adapts to new environment and mediums, currently digital media

- Fast and multi-tasked reading has advantage for large volume information but comes at cost of ability for "deep reading"

- College students now actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because of "cognitive impatience"

- Anne Mangen did experiment to have 50% student read a story on kindle and 50% on print material. Later group showed superior comprehension, re-construction and retention

- Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text

- Physicality of print material enables association with space and time allowing readers for re-examination aka “technology of recurrence”

- Negative effects of screen reading can appear as early as fourth and fifth grade impacting comprehension and empathy

Only seemingly unrelated:


Blaise Pascal (and more people after him):

"I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter."

I'd be quite surprised if the problem were actually screen use rather than the cognitive and emotional effects of feed-based content delivery that optimizes for so-called engagement. By that term, web-oriented people usually mean staying on the site/platform, not necessarily engaging with the actual content or fellow users. Whether it's an endless-scrolling social media feed or auto-play on YouTube, we're up to our eyeballs in companies that are doing their damnedest to keep us in continual anticipation of the next blob of content coming down the pipe rather than looking away. To the extent that a difference is observed with screens, I suspect it's not some intrinsic inferiority in screens as a medium, but rather a behavioral link between being in that context and the activation of feed-conditioned habits.

Television has had a larval form of this pattern for decades, but with television there were at least times when the spell was broken because "nothing's on". Nobody could analyze all your habits and interests on an individual level and create your perfect "channel" that's on the air all day, every day. That's what we're moving toward now, and it's becoming more apparent with time that even being a few steps down that road doesn't seem entirely healthy. I don't have a fistful of neuroscience studies to cite, let alone a solution, but I have a bad feeling that this is going to get worse before it gets better.

I question the article's use of the word digital which covers both e-ink and LCD devices. The Mangen study it mentions was e-ink vs paper, but it was only 50 people and her own later work appears to call it into question. In the other studies mentioned it's not clear from the article if they were LCD or e-ink, and I suspect they were LCD.

The "technology of recurrence" is interesting. I do use e-ink and I'm considerably less likely to go back a few pages to check something out than if I was reading a paper book.

The Kindle makes flipping back and forth tough and I won't use it for reference works for this reason.

Perhaps we as an internet generation just read too much?

There are so many articles/topics repeating themselfs. It starts to happen @hacker news for me as well and that makes it boring.

I don't need to read the 20.000th article about a specific topic in full. I only might wanna see if the author got something new, which is often just not the case.

I didn't read that much text when we only used newspapers. I read the paper after lunch for half an hour or so. Thats it. No newspaper on sunday.

Also writing a concise, captivating text is a skill few master

Skim reading is definitely a art and skill. At the highest levels of that skill, you're basically trusting your subconscious to alert your thinking mind that a phrase or passage is worth putting in that extra few seconds. It's also something I automatically do just to get a sense for the piece of writing once, whether or not I choose to read it deeper. It makes deep reading that much easier.

The way out of the problems caused by skimming is to skim more.

I skimmed the whole Atlantic piece to digest the point, then decided it wasn't worth a deeper examination. My own experience with the concept is probably way way better than the author's. And the stated thesis of the article just isn't important to me.

Writing a lot helps with reading. Spending lots and lots of time putting together arguments and points sets yourself up to recognize common patterns extremely quickly in recently-written prose. When dealing with older prose, or poetry, especially something like the Bible, my mind slows way way way way down to an almost glacial pace, the subconscious just isn't primed to understand the writing as the culture in which it was written is long long gone.

I skim articles alot that are posted from HN because I need to evaluate if the article is worth reading. What would stop me skimming is to a straight to the point article.

I dislike a wafflely story that is of no interest at the beginning and I can't be bothered to read it. For example I could prefix this comment when "Back when I was a boy I stacked straw on the farm, ...", and that would be similar.

As other commenters here have alluded, if you read a lot, especially a lot of non-fiction, you start to realize that much of what is out there is mostly fluff hiding the true point the headline alludes. That's why you see the rise of apps like Blinkist, which summarizes whole books in 15 minutes. As an avid reader, I don't care for the backstory, I don't care for how you arrived where you are, and I don't really care for your musing or anecdotes or examples or any fluff you use to make an article an article. At some point, if you're intelligent enough, you feel like you've heard it all and just want to meat. The sad truth is that most articles can be summed up in one paragraph, or even bullet points. The points can even be highlighted from the fluff and those who don't care to read it. Skimming isn't some degradation of society, its society adapting to the information overflow. A good, well written book will have quality content that keeps you from skimming.

> if you're intelligent enough, you feel like you've heard it all and just want to meat

no, if you are intelligent then you value context, details, nuance and looking at the same point from varied angles. If you're intelligent you try to become deeply knowledgeable about one topic that you are passionate about rather than trying to memorize bullet points, which gets you nowhere. The unique feat of human intellect is deep excellence in individual domains, not being able to quickly absorb bullet points. Deeply intelligent individuals dive into topics to such a degree of detail that it would even bore the average 'deep reader' to death.

The answer to information overflow is not to trade detail for bullet points. Key is to be able to discern what is relevant to you and what is not, and to focus deeply on the things that are. The fact that people tend towards skimming is a sign that they are not able to do this.

> The points can even be highlighted from the fluff and those who don't care to read it.

The best of both worlds.

You're correct, if I truly care for a topic, I will read the fluff. The vast majority of internet articles don't fall into this category.

I disagree, the fact that they skim means they ARE able to do this.

It's a fine line to draw... On the one hand, I feel like I have some form of "new information addiction". Even my dad, who is 70, has pretty aggressive surfing habits.

On the other hand, I skimmed books back in the 90's, before I surfed the web daily. (There was much less "new" high quality information online then.)

I would check out 5 books at a time from the library, and read the best one, and skim the rest.

I also studied for my AP History test in exactly one day by skimming, and got a great score. IIRC, I read the first and last sentence of every chapter in a 200 page book in one night. It's not a bad way to read if you're looking for the high level structure of stories and arguments.

Many authors are in love with their own prose, and it is too long.

My blog looks dense but I've gotten good feedback on it, mostly because I use skimmable headings, and delete words from sentences, so it's short and dense:


Most journalists, authors, and college professors are still writing in the analog mindset, when most audiences are attuned to digital mediums AND are extremely time-constrained. Editors who have responsibility for major websites (and who have high double-digit mobile readerships) still hand out assignments like it's 1998 - "800 words on topic X" or "write me a 1500 word feature on Y."

A few new media publishers understand that they need to retool content for the new generation of readers (think TMZ and early TechCrunch) but they are still the minority in the English-speaking world.

Yes, it's sad that long-form reading and comprehension levels are in decline. But this is the evolution of media and communication at work, and people who publish need to adapt to new ways of communicating. Humanity has had shifts like this before (orality to the written word, hand-copied text to the printing press, the impact of broadcasting, etc.) and we'll still survive.

My hypothesis is that the measurable difference between skim reading and deep reading is small if even statistically significant. The difference between reading at all vs not reading is large.

If I have to be ready for deep reading before I read anything, then I'll never read anything.

Apparently they equate “length” with “depth”, which can correlate but they don’t have to. You can always have both brilliant quotes and dumb tweets, and you can have both insightful tomes and rambling messes.

The need to skim is more a comment on how quickly many things can now be accomplished. People are trained to think that anything should be quick these days.

Unfortunately, it takes time to condense good material into bite-size chunks. It’s not hard to see, in a zero-time-to-publish society, how the “easy” and poorly-written bites win out over anything better. A person can spew out 100 dumb tweets in less time than it takes to compose one well-researched concept in a sufficiently short space to be consumed.

The only way I'm going to deeply read an entire article is if (a) it's relevant to my strongest interests, (b) it's concise, and (c) the author has credibility on the subject. Very seldom are all of these fulfilled, even in peer-reviewed academic literature.

For example, I didn't read this article because "the effect on society is profound" implies that the author doesn't have a strong conslusion, meaning that it's uninteresting (a) and probably not concise (b).

Alternatively, if the writer has a strong voice or unique style, I'll read the article just to appreciate that.

the new new normal is to check the HN comments first...

The problem with most texts is that they're linear and structure-less, which means it is hard to efficiently extract information from. I should be able to decide exactly how much of a text I want to read, depending on how interested I am.

If text would be hierarchical, with top level items being summaries, and each successive (indented) level going into more detail, I could tailor the reading of the text to my needs, interest level, and prior knowledge of the subject.

Why do we not write like this?

I have some ideas/prototypes around this, drop me a note if curious (not ready for show HN).

adam dot sah at gm

There's skim reading and there's selective reading.

I tend to read only what I need to move forward either in thought or on a project.

I learn faster this way. And I can do this now because of the power of search.

Sometimes the phenomenon is annoying; like when you think you are having an interesting discussion on an Internet forum/social network and when you actually write something longer than 1 sentence which you are passionate about and thought about longer than 1 second, you notice that people only respond the start of the first line and end of the last line. Which makes everyone sound stupid including you who thought was actually having a good convo.

The reality is long-form articles are probably not the future of conveying complex ideas to a mass audience. Skimming is the only way to sift through the insane amount of content produced daily. Of course, if you skim an article and find it interesting, switching over to slow comprehensive reading is the next step.

As the article suggests, this behavior, taken to a pathological extreme, leads to a sort of sloppy thinking where readers are simply unable to engage with or evaluate complex ideas, even when necessary. But you might have missed that if you didn't read it too closely.

Yes I think modern mediums provide better ways than long text for exploring deeply complex ideas.

Such as?

Contrarian opinion: repetitive writing is actually important in helping us remember what the article or book is talking about. Humans learn via repetition. If we took out the fluff, the article/book would be <50% as effective as it is with fluff and repetition.

It really feels like I need to skim read at times. I'm in engineering school, and the textbooks don't have very much depth, but god help you if you try and understand it all instead of jumping ahead to find the information you desperately need for your homework.

I did the same. After grad I was marooned so I read them end-to-end. Bag of tricks becomes coherent incremental subject.

We have so much information to take in, and it is so often something we already know, or a well worn trope being repeated that skimming becomes a survival trait. We cannot ingest this amount of input without disqualifying a few bits in the data stream.

It's pretty ironic to have an article decry skim reading that itself is littered with distracting (and pointless) text extracts and useless photos, all designed to distract. It took me deliberate effort to resist the distractions.

As far as I remember eye tracking usability studies skimming was always the norm on the web. Since people have to process a lot of information to get anything done. And deep reading was always special kind of activity for rare things.

It's worth noting that programming requires a kind of extreme reading comprehension so the premise of this article probably doesn't apply to programmers (or scientists, writers, lawyers, etc).

The best books I read were written by scientists, people who think they are scientists (sociology, and mostly due to failing rigorous approaches), and books written for teens (I no longer read fiction). All have in common that the reader has an aversion to fluff, by way of not finishing it/not buying another book by the same author. These also don't really work for making you feel intelligent among your friends, who will likely not understand much of it anyway.

Some of the papers I read recently, like the "Instant field meshes" one, also exhibit this careful balance of concept density without going to the point where you need Kant-level mentality to comprehend the conveyed concept (referring specifically to Kritik der reinen Vernunft).

This is scary. I used to read 2-3 books per day in the summer as a kid. I used to read books on planes or at coffee houses. Now I skim iPhone or iPad. I need to start reading real books again!

I don't know whether this is the effect of me having read a lot of documentation by skimming, now I skim almost everything that I read.

I think most non-tech people that I met still reading normally.

Personally I skim read in order to evaluate the text. If it grabs my attention, then I read it carefully.

I read works of art normally, without skimming.

If only we could "skim-watch" videos ...

This is one reason I find videos for purely informational content are often frustrating. It'd often be so much faster to just read text.

Youtube-dl, then play at your desired speed in mpv, xine, mplayer, or VLC. Keyboard control to skip forward and back. There's mps-youtube for audio-only playback (it also supports video).

Even with this, shitty production -- say, couple of jokers' completely unedited stream-of-blather 2 hour vlog that only got remotely near the point by 20 min in, but failed to hold together through the 30m maark, where I bailed (skipping through, aggressively) -- is intolerable.

Mind: there is very well-produced material. Lectures, audiobooks, documentaries, etc. But like any large complex work, it takes skill, preparation, a goal in mind, and time.

Why would I jump through all these hoops when I can just find a text based article on the subject?

It depends, of course, on what you are interested in. I find that the presentation of a true expert or master beats, or at the very least complements, text. There are also times listening is more conducive than reading. A Feynman, or academic lecturer, or a truly goog author discussing their work, generally.

Mind: typical news or opinion pieces rarely reach this level.

How about a tool that extracts text from youtube-dl downloaded videos? And when you click on a line of text, the tool will read the fragment out loud (useful when the transcription is not clear) using the original audio. And it could show the corresponding video (useful when the presenter is using overhead sheets). You could click a button to make a snapshot of the sheet which is then inserted into the transcript, so the next reader wouldn't have to do this.

"Skim reading is the new normal" says the 10k word article.

"screen reading is the problem" says the internet article.

I do it because otherwise I'm a really slow reader.

Somehow I have to read every word on its own.

I blame writing classes in high school. Expositions are useless. Get to the point.

I can do better than skim reading. I just save to Pocket.

I never read the first paragraph. Works every time.

I skim articles that are unnecessarily verbose, like this one

Define unnecessarily

Anything you wouldn't read-out loud if you were presenting the article verbally to an audience.

My wife occasionally reasds BBC news stories to me and it's remarkable how much 'blah blah hang on a moment til I find the story' even those contain.

Thorstein Veblen vs. E. B. White.

Skim reader since 1968 grew up in a house of books. Can somebody give me the tl;dr? I've got about three on the go right now, too busy to skim /s

I skimmed this article, and I skimmed the comments here too

This was a mental test not to tl;dr


Right? I thought that was the new normal.

I skimmed anyway.

Skimmed this article. Looked pretty decent.

All the more for machine learning to crunch texts and provide a succinct summary for the reader.

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