Our Brains May be Shorting out on Skimming


As I painted my son’s ceilings over spring break, I listened to the the radio streaming from my computer in the next room. A piece came on about our brains and the effects of skimming material while surfing the Internet in our Information Age. Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, said that we have begun to lose our ability to process complex sentence structures even as we have created this amazing ability to look quickly for the information we need.

I found myself nodding my head as I dripped white paint into my hair and splattered it on my glasses with the roller.

Last week I talked about my bookmares and how I cannot get through tough scenes in audio books. When it gets too heavy in audio, I have to get the print book so I can skim to the safer parts. I’ve also written about how I often prefer reading with my ears because the audio versions make me slow down and drink in the images I might otherwise push through to find out what happens next.

I don’t imagine I can now let go of the actors reading to me in my car, but Maryanne Wolf made me want to try a bit of complex reading or, at the very least, do more print reading to keep my brain in shape. I’m always telling my students how good it is for their brains to learn a language. (I’ve got to say something encouraging about the gargantuan task now and then to keep them going.)

I’d feel insincere if I didn’t take some of my own medicine, so I am now shopping for dense language in well written books. Suggestions, again, are welcome.

Pictures of skimming escaped me today. But I did find a video of this crazy event I never knew of before: pond skimming. Maybe skimming in reading is just as fun as these goofy people who made me smile this morning. I’m hoping for warmer weather and water when I soak in the pool of words in a book.


Reading with My Ears



My sister Mary recently told me about listening to Snow Falling on Cedars with her 14 year old son. He needed to finish an abundance of school assigned reading and had fallen behind, so she checked out the CD’s for the long holiday drive to his grandmother’s house.

“I didn’t remember the sex scenes from when I last read that book,” Mary said.

She noticed them while driving with her son. At first she thought she could manage to listen with him but soon decided to fast forward. She ended up skipping several sections even at the risk of missing any important plot details.

I hadn’t remembered those scenes, either. As my sister and I started talking about how listening to a book is different from reading the book, I realized some of why I often like listening better.

When I listen to a book, I am forced to sit through every word. This is why Mary had such a hard time with the sex scenes and also why I have a harder time with the violence in audio. When I read a book, I can zip through these parts, looking for important plot pieces but not absorbing every detail. Over the years, I’ve become a terrific skimmer. Often this is because I have a long swath of boring information to wade through for my day job, for a mortgage, or for my taxes.It’s a hard habit for me to break if I happen to hit an uncomfortable or slower spot in a novel.

When I hear the book, I am stuck taking in every word. The excellent part of this is that I don’t push forward as much and actually get more out of many of the books I listen to on tape. I wrote recently about The Book Thief with it’s poetic descriptions of the sky and a muddy kids’ soccer games. I felt more like I lived those experiences than I might if I flew through the pages with my eyes to find out what would happen next as fast as possible.

I also adore some of the actors’ voices because of what they bring to a text. Jim Dale is one of my all time favorite readers. I will never forget listening to my first Harry Potter book on the way home from church one day with my dad. We liked it so much we sat in the car to hear it. After that we brought it inside to set up in the living room and listen some more.

The Help was read by three talented actors with southern accents I would never be able to do justice to in my head if I read the book on my own. I can create accents in my mind’s ear for a time but, as I get absorbed in the plot, my thoughts slip back into Pacific Northwest suburban English. Jim Dale also helped me with his English accents — I especially loved his Hagrid and McGonagall.

I didn’t at first like this book on tape thing. It still bothers me that I can’t see the words on the page. I’m currently listening to Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead, and I’ve been bugged by the last name of the painter that the main character Georges is named after. Georges keeps talking about how it sounds like Sir Ott when his parents pronounce it. Later another character uses a French pronunciation. All the while I’ve been thinking, “How is it spelled? How does that look on paper?” When I looked it up, I discovered that it’s Seurat.  And then I got a flash of ‘I’m an art dummy or I would already know this painter’ which wasn’t a good feeling and distracted me from the reading even if it happens to be the truth.

I also don’t like that I can’t easily go back to see what I missed or have forgotten. If I hit a tough spot in traffic or my toddler points out a train, I sometimes miss things and don’t want to fiddle with the audio to pick it back up.

And sometimes I get so eager to finish the book that the end of my car trip is a great inconvenience. I remember once driving out to Alder Lake and back for the extra 2 hours of listening time which wasn’t all that good for my gas bill. Lately, I’ve taken to checking out the printed book and the CD from the library so that I don’t have this problem. I can read the book when I get home.

As I think about it, I suppose I really have my dad to thank for getting me started on audio books. He drove miles for his work, all across Washington and Oregon and never was much of a visual reader. It was such a pleasure to hear stories with him or to talk about the books we’d both heard. I’m grateful to Dad for the in the car experiences I get to have even now that he’s gone.

Maybe my sister’s experience with her son will get him listening to his own books on tape in the future. Maybe, if nothing else, so he can go back and listen to the scenes his mother fast forwarded in Snow Falling on Cedars.