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Thursday, March 22, 2012

How I Read

I was thinking about skimming. I can recall back in High School being warned that, in college, so much reading would be assigned than it would be impossible to read every word. There was the suggestion that one could read the first and last sentence of each paragraph (written in a book). I found that I couldn't do this easily. If I forced myself to skip sentences, I saved no time as the time required to pull away and then find the beginning of the last sentence of the paragraph was greater than the time required to read the middle sentences of the paragraph.

Ah youth. Now I find that, when I am supposed to read something, I can't help skimming. I won't make any more specific confession.

On the other hand, when I enjoy reading something, I re-read the sentences which I found especially enjoyable. I have the sense that I rarely read every word once, that I either skip words or read some words twice. My guess is that 95% of the time, I read each word once, but that I notice the exceptions, because I have some silly sense that reading each word once is the normal way to read.

So why do I re-read sentences ? Partly, it is just because, if I enjoyed it once, I expect to enjoy it again, and I don't want to defer that gratification. In this sense, well written sentences are like potato chips, reading a well written sentence jut once is like eating just one potato chip.

Here you see that, while I appreciate good writing (mostly good prose, I am insensitive to poetry) I can't write well to save my life. The potato chip metaphor leads (me) irresistably
to "reading a well written sentence just once is like eating a potato chip just once" writing which makes one think of vomiting and ... OK when apologizing for my vomitious* writing I shouldn't make a bad sentence worse.

But also, I think, there are different joys in the first and second reading. This is especially true if the excellence of the sentence is based on a surprising development (so it is partially a joke). there is pleasure in seeing the trap set for the unwary reader and knowing it will be sprung. Re-reading good sentences is a way to enjoy the experience of having written them without the ability to write well.

The non skimming reader will also note that appreciation for good writing can coexist with indifference to correct spelling. I wasn't always this way. When I was younger, was positively opposed to correct spelling -- I thought English should be reformed to make it phonetic. Orwell wept.

*yes that is a word. In 1985 heard Professor Larry Summers use it when talking to Professor N Gregory Mankiw.

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