Skimming the Surface

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

“To be succesful today, it not only becomes necessary to skim but it becomes essential to skim well.” Shreeharsh Kelkar taken from Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Kindle, loc 1459.

“I learned at a very early age that unless you are reading for some purpose other than pleasure you can safely skim over difficult quagmires, cut your way through tangled jungles, skip the solemn and boring lowlands, and simply let yourself be carried by the vigorous stream of the tale.” Manguel, Alberto. A Reader on Reading. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 2010. Kindle, loc 127.

According to my dictionary, the word skim comes from the word scum. If I wanted I could play with words and suggest skimming the surface detects scum sitting on the surface.  As appetizing as I find the relationship I prefer to stop my etymological analysis at “skimming the surface,” barely touching the substance beneath. Suffice it to say the ways to approach a book differ depending on the level of understanding you want to achieve. Even a brilliant reader doesn’t roll through Finnegan’s Wake without having to pause and reflect. On the other hand, most adults could probably read Pinnochio and understand the basic plot.

Adler and Van Doren describe four basic approaches to reading, each requiring a different time commitment and all producing a different understanding (Adler and Van Doren 16). Consider the four approaches: (1) Elementary Reading; (2) Inspectional Reading; (3) Analytical Reading; (4) Syntopical Reading (Adler and Van Doren 17-19). We will progress to Syntopical reading assuming Elementary reading mastery as our starting point. If this all sounds like a foreign language, don’t worry. We will take each step at a time and its not as complicated as it sounds.

Systematic Skimming, Pre-Reading, or Inspectional Reading (All names meaning the same)

Skimming is a methodical way to learn the most information about a book given a limited time commitment. From there you can decide if you want to spend anymore time with it. Skimming involves asking yourself questions to get the book’s gist while understanding some books will reveal more from a thorough reading.

Do you even want to read the book?

Why do you think you want to read the book?

Look at the title page and preface.

What’s the book’s type and do others cover the same subject?

Look at the table of contents.

Ask yourself the same questions again?

Do I want to read this book?

Why do I want to read this book?

Read the blurb (the publisher’s summary on the book’s back or on the book’s jacket).

Which chapter piques your curiosity or seems important to explain why you want to read the book?

Read the summary paragraph for the chapter, if possible.

Randomly select two other paragraphs to scan.

Brave and willing to risk spoiling the ending? Read the book’s last two pages.

(Adler and Van Doren 32)

You can perform this work mentally and with practice you won’t even find it necessary to refer back to these questions.  You probably already skim to a degree every time you go to the bookstore, but doing this systematically allows you to efficiently make an introduction to the book. For reference, at the grocery store shoppers skip to the back label for the information conveniently condensed there and make a purchase decision. There are no nutritional labels on books and book publishers sometimes lie on the blurbs. To keep them honest make an inspectional reading.

I skim to find out if I want to read the book. Bookstores and libraries expose you to books you can skim. Technologies like also offer to deliver free samples to your Kindle. With the samples you can skim a book’s table of contents and the first thirty or so pages lying on your couch.

Find a familiar book and skim it or find a new interesting looking book and skim it by asking the series of questions above. Write down one thing you learned from skimming the book you didn’t know about the book before you skimmed it. Write down two questions skimming the book brought to mind. Follow this process with any new book. Expect to ask more questions while skimming than you answer.