Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What Fools These Mortal Readers Be

“I give e-mail skimming a pass. Because a businessman once acted out for me how he and his peers have to be ruthless with reading e-mail.”
From an e-mail to Derek Silvers by Sean Crawford

Hello reader,
Should we read or skim?
If we skim, then what would our dear mothers say?

I’m behind schedule for another post about 
me and “blogs in general.” 

(OK: Before I forget, let me say, for “blogs in general,” John Scalzi blogged on July 4 that “… the general collapse of blogs, which has been happening for a couple of years now, really seems to have accelerated in the last year.” 

I don’t think people are leaving their screens, rather, they’re just switching their viewing to things like Facebook and Twitter)

Never mind me. I’ve been wondering what other readers are like. Readers of the Internet, I mean. For readers of the screen, scientists have found them to be a little stressed at trying to squint at digital fonts: It seems people don’t want the same blocks of text on screen they would easily read on paper. This I already knew, instinctively, and so I’ve been writing paragraphs almost as short as in a newspaper.  I trust my instincts, even though I’m a middle-aged man from the time before computers. May I confess something? I still have an odd feeling that anyone reading a screen must be a computer nerd… 

I think it’s Politically Correct for me to blog about PC users, because I think I still have my nerd credentials: After all, I still like fantasy and science fiction. In fact, I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, and seen the 1980’s movie. At the cinema. Haven’t done the new TV series yet, but surely I would like it. Elizabeth Moss has a nice familiar face. Speaking of sci-fi, may I do a fantasy thought experiment?

Imagine I’ve walked into the old library tower at the university. I walk in awe among the exciting stacks. Maybe I sit cross-legged on the floor in the dusty aisle to read intently. And since this is my fantasy: Matrix-style, I can wave my hand to make the stacks race past me, then wave stop! —and I pick out a book or periodical —and be engaged. Committed. Sitting in the aisle. After all, you get out of life the effort you put in. 

Regarding real life, and people reading the Internet… research shows that many will arrive on a web site, glance at the “homepage” and then skip off again along the web. No sitting cross-legged, figuratively. 

Sad to say, I cannot, metaphorically, imagine Americans as smiling Buddhists in canvas sneakers skipping alongside the new exciting “temple of computer” like excited kids going through cyberspace. No, for the research is damnably depressing: Lots of people will be reading fonts with feelings of low grade distress, while also, like having an annoying fan whir-whir-whirring in the background, be reading with an ongoing impatience. Not only do they skim and click off, but even when they are quote “reading” unquote, they are doing so with just as much impatience as enjoyment. Forget any awesome “temple of learning.” According to science, many people skim every page of any site they like. Call it “skimming as a lifestyle choice.”

Maybe they think they are “trying” to read. I think of Yoda: “There is no try, either do or do not.” These poor guys are missing a chance to be present like Yoda, instead rushing along in a pathetic doomed search for their digital pot of gold. Such a twisted form of FOMA: fear of missing out. I get it. For them, the long scroll of article titles in a nerd forum must be as intimidating as the looming university stacks. But there’s a difference. A lady smart-as-a-nerd, carrying her regional library card, wandering over to the campus and up the tower, does not regard the stacks with distressful impatience, let alone have a helpless compulsion to skim.   

I would ask those poor skimmers: The last time you stood up from your screen, did you feel a sense of accomplishment? Had you lost track of your time because you were having so much fun? Or, if you lost track because it was just so much compulsion, did you stand up feeling hollow? 

A modern-day Henry David Thoreau would decry consumers frantically rushing to be consumers of screen time. And for what? A life of quiet desperation?… Oh, believe me, I get it. Sometimes, if I am on my computer and my neck is somehow stiff and unable to turn a mere ten degrees to look at my clock, then I know my head is clamped in the vice grip of a compulsion. And I stand up hollow. 

Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I have to say it: At those times I don’t respect myself. So then how can I respect the nerds in skimmer-land? At least they’re happy in their own way. I suppose. I hope.

Maybe they could take a step towards sanity by spending twice as much time on merely half as many sites. Maybe, like a television addict, they need to… I don’t know. What do addicts do?

I really should stop writing now. I don’t suppose, dear reader, you want me to rant and rave. 

Better for you to hear me being positive, so here goes: Two of my favorite bloggers are computer nerds. One is a former manager at Microsoft, we correspond by e-mail. Recently he was feeling depressed, so I advised him I feel cheered up by reading the blog of Derek Sivers, a guy who can program in several computer languages. Derek, I told him, presents a down-to-earth sanity.

In Siver’s post (link) about writing for the screen he says “people are busy.” (see comment #122 for “research on readers”) That’s a charitable way for Derek to put it, but no: “People skim.” The folks shown in the research studies may be in the majority, but still, “they skim because they skim.” Of course I believe in “democracy” and “the majority,” but—The majority also consumes too much sugar, owns too much stuff, and exercises too little. I know this, because I am human too. But I don’t have to like it. In fact, I could wink sideways to you and say, “My blood just boils, boils I tell you, thinking about the research on screen readers.”

Or I could lose my sense of ha-ha and get angry, then: “OK Self, try to calm down. Meditate: … “ohmmm, ohmmmm, …” Works for Yoda, not so much for me. Let’s change the topic to my own blog. 

I write for a niche market: For readers who know the name Henry Thoreau, or at least are willing to look him up. Without needing me to present them with a link on a silver platter. People with a God-given attention span. 

I won’t make my essays any shorter. Even Aesop, teaching his morals, had to wrap his sound-bites in a two-page fable, if he wanted his datum to stick. I realize my beautiful, perfect, darling posts get skimmed—I came up through newspaper journalism, I know—Still, if you manage to skim all the way to the ending of one of my essays then truly you are doing better than the mass of men. Good for you, good for me.

Now, without skimming or rushing, I suggest you go and take your… time… in seeing your dear mother.

Sean Crawford

~ My last scheduled self-indulgent essay “about me and blogs in general” was Twenty-Five Blogs archived October 2016.

AND THEN there’s Doctor Who, with his reading glasses, in that show about a sad near-immortal with mortal companions:

~Here’s a nice link to Abigail’s Song performed on stage, backed by a string quartet, by the classically trained singer Katherine Jenkins who first sang the song on Doctor Who. In the show, Abigail is a tragic figure with a beautiful soul. Her song begins, “When you’re alone, silence is all you know.”

~I wrote of the New Doctor Who, with his space-and-time machine, back in February 2017. He has a habit of saying, “back in ten minutes” and then returning after years. Well, for one of his pretty young companions, he returns to find she is 63 years old and retired. But at least she’s taught in every country in Europe, and even learned to fly a plane. But still… He feels badly—and he should. Maybe adults like your mother don’t grow as fast as children do, but yes, they are growing. Don’t miss out.

~There are two Dr. Who contrasting back-to-back episodes: The Girl who Died and The Woman who Lived. The beloved girl, who died surrounded by people who loved her, was lucky. The woman? Unfortunately, she lived too long, too lonely, and then she stopped caring about people. As a script writer said (link) on the Joss Whedon quotes site, “Loneliness leads to nothing good. Only detachment.”

…like I said, go see your mother. 


  1. Cindy, I say: hurray!

    My first faithful fan (Hi Lee) laughed to say I should make a T-shirt with my phrase,
    "If you skim,
    you're dim"

    1. I love it! I'll buy one if you have some made.