diamond geezer

 Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I've always been a fast reader.

I started early, long before nursery school, to the bemusement (and I'd hope delight) of my parents. I'm not sure my first teacher was quite so pleased, however, when I got to the end of her reading scheme much earlier than she'd hoped. Somewhere around the age of 12 I remember reading all three volumes of The Lord of The Rings in a week, because there were no competing social media demands in children's lives in those days. And I still make sure I take several novels on holiday, not just one, because I don't want to run out of material partway through Day Two. Reading just came naturally to me, perhaps too naturally, and I have to remember sometimes that not everyone's eyeball to brain connection works so well.

I don't know how you read books (I genuinely don't, it's not something people generally discuss), but I'm a scanner. When I first turn the page to read the next part of a chapter, my eye's all over the page taking it all in. I start at the top, obviously, but I'm always scanning ahead to get the gist of what the next bit says. Not for me the painstaking line-by-line routine, I just sort of see the text and absorb its meaning wholesale, and move on. Or at least I think that's how it works. It's quite hard to analyse instinctive behaviour like this because the minute you deliberately concentrate you start doing things differently. But I think "skipping" is the best word I can think of to describe my reading style, alighting on the key words and phrases on the way through the page, gleaning 90% of the meaning if not the full hundred. I worry sometimes I'm not picking everything up, that I'm missing some linguistic nuance the author spent hours crafting. But I get most of it, even grin at turns of phrase, plus I rattle through far quicker than most.

When I'm jammed on the tube with only a neighbour's newspaper for entertainment, it often annoys me quite how slowly other people read. I've finished scanning the whole of Metro page 6 in seconds, and they're still slogging through a two paragraph filler about Kim Kardashian's latest tweet. "Come on!" I think, when they haven't turned the page a couple of stations later, surely nobody's quite that slow. It happens with ebooks too, when the lady jammed in beside me has the same fifty words open for what seems like an eternity before brushing to the next electronic page. And yes I know that English might not be these commuters' first language, which means they're battling bravely with a string of tortuous foreign characters. But it is precisely at times like these, staring back around the carriage for lack of anything new to skim, that I suspect my reading speed is at the gifted end of the spectrum.

I like newspapers, proper printed newspapers, precisely because they're perfect for scanning. I revel in the spread of articles and images all over the page, so I can whizz around taking in what's of interest and merely noting the rest for future reference. Sure, if I have the time and inclination I can take much longer and digest stories one by one in detail. But generally I'm reading to become better informed about a wider range of current affairs, devouring the paper for nuggets of information, and the broadsheet format helps optimise my search.

And that's why I'm hesitant, even hostile, regarding news's gradual evolution from page to screen. Sure it means much more up-to-date stories, but it also means a considerable shrinkage of the area visible to read at any one time. You try reading the same article on a laptop as in print and see how much less you get - just the first paragraph and a half and a photo, sorry, and to see any more you'll have to scroll. This spatial limitation isn't too much of a problem if you read slowly, nor I suspect if you read at average pace. But for those of us who read quickly, only being able to scan a fraction of an online article before scrolling down is surprisingly restrictive.

And the move to mobile is much worse. You're lucky to get 50 words on a screen these days, maybe 100 at a push, which is nothing compared to other means of presentation. It's like reading a newspaper through a small rectangular hole, or cutting up an article into a dozen individual sections and being forced to read one at a time. This time surely even people who read at an average pace must notice the difference, must feel somewhat held back, but still the minimisation bandwagon rolls on.

Because mobile format is becoming the default for more and more of what we read online. "Mobile first" is the developers' motto, which just seems to mean templates with more white space and larger font. Sure this makes it readable in your pocket, and accessible across a range of formats, but it also means the rest of us on bigger screens have to make do with less. And it doesn't help that photographs are now being flaunted more widely beneath news paragraphs, often taking up almost a whole screen in themselves, to ensure that even Android users can see the detail and because it looks prettier on a tablet.

We're entering a world in which information is presented in bite-sized chunks and in lowest common denominator sizes. A world in which you can no longer see everything in one go, and where swiping is enforced even when it's not strictly necessary. And if the younger generation grows up more capable of multi-tasking and makes better contact with the world around them as a result, then great. But I wonder if my generation is the last with a talent for scanning large areas of text, as what it means to be a fast reader evolves to mean scrolling rather than skimming.

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