I Don’t Really Read Anymore

Ryan Fan

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I have a confession to make: many times when I say I read something, I don’t. It’s not like I never take a look or I don’t seriously read a few lines that strike me, but I am overloaded and am already thinking about the next piece I have to read, the assignments I have to grade, the dishes I have to do.

I’m so deep in my own world that your writing, a lot of the times, isn’t going to get through to me. Of course, there are exceptions. People who ask for feedback will often get my most discerning eye, as well as pieces I edit, and there are some writers that break me out of my non-reading pattern.

On most of what I read, I skim.

I call it “reading”, and maybe I even trick myself into believing that I’m “reading” just because I clicked on something and scrolled to the bottom of the page. But it’s not really reading.

Somewhere down the line, I tricked myself into thinking that completion was more important than engagement. I realize that barring some exceptions, I don’t really feel anything from what I read, which is somewhat alarming.

Completion is not more important than engagement, but it’s a struggle to emotionally accept the fact in our hearts when there’s so much to frantically complete. We are beings of busy-ness, always with something else to do, somewhere else to go, a person that needs caring for, and another topic that needs our attention.

I can’t speak for why anyone else skims, but I have spoken to many people who say they don’t really read anymore — they only skim. To say that people have short attention spans is, well, a drastic understatement.

My story

But why do I skim? Well, it’s a pretty long story, but I’ll try to tell it as succinctly as possible. A big insecurity when I was in elementary and grade school was that I wasn’t a good reader. I didn’t learn English until I was four, having been sent away to China to live with my grandparents when I was two since my parents were too poor to take care of two kids. When I came back to the States at four, I only knew Chinese — it was all I needed to know.

I don’t really remember how I learned English. I just did. I went to school, was at some pre-K, but I didn’t like to read because I wasn’t good at it. I was very behind a lot of my peers and loved playing video games much more than I enjoyed reading. Until late middle school, I wasn’t on grade-level reading. I excelled at math, but reading and reading comprehension exams always made me very insecure.

Of course, I eventually caught up, but I’ll always remember my utter embarrassment when my mom was called into a meeting with a guidance counselor and my elementary school teacher, and we discussed the possibility of putting me in remedial courses for English Language Arts. I already felt like other kids made fun of me for not being able to read well, so the stigma of being in remedial courses frightened me.

Because of these insecurities, I overcompensated. All the Chinese kids in the community went to Chinese School on Saturdays so we learned to read and write in Chinese, and that we wouldn’t forget our native language. I denied Chinese School. I tried not to go by whatever means necessary and didn’t do the homework — because I was American, and if I struggled so much to read in English, why should I learn to read in Chinese, too?

Not only was I a bad reader, though, but I was a slow one. I couldn’t get through all the reading comprehension questions on tests. I felt so incompetent whenever I was asked to tell the class what was going on in a grade-level book, and not know.

So I associated reading faster with reading better. Quantity became the signifier of my reading competence and prowess. I would read more books, and read them faster, forcing myself to read them to the end. I would start timing how fast I was reading — put a stopwatch to see how quickly I got to the end of the page.

How much I actually absorbed was an afterthought — what was important was that I had a book in front me, and was ostensibly reading it. Naturally, I would improve at reading by just reading more and being in school, but the thought that reading faster was better would not escape me for a very long time.

In essence, I would skim everything I read. There were periods where I realized that it was better to read slower and more thoughtfully, like when I took my SATs, but those moments were short-lived by the constant pressure for more. There was always more to read, and so what if I only got the basic details and surface-level ideas of a news piece? Why did I need to extract an experience and emotion out of everything I read in the first place?

Today, however, I have made it a mission to slow down when I read, and not worry about speed at all. I know I’m a good reader — so why do I need to prove it?

I read a book and multiple pieces slow, sometimes painfully slow, but I made sure that I absorbed everything, paid attention to everything, and for the first time in a long time, I felt and experienced everything I read. I picked up on a lot of small details I would have normally missed. Sure, I’m not reading as much, but what I did read was how it was meant to be read — as an experience, not an item on a checklist.

It felt liberating to just read, and actually read rather than skim. I have been reading all day, and the time has just flown by — and I have a much more incisive and engaged eye to everything I am reading. I’m reading less, but I’ve learned a crucial lesson:

It’s better to deeply engage and read one article than it is to skim 100.

That might be obvious to some of you, but to me, that statement is something a younger, even more frantic version of myself would have scoffed at. Sure, there are times where I need to skim, where we all do in our hyper-paced and inattentive world. I’m certainly not going to read every single email I receive thoughtfully — that’s 60,000 unread e-mails.

But I don’t really read anymore, and the biggest person that loses out on that isn’t the writer of the book or piece I’m reading, but myself. I disguised skimming as “productivity” to rob myself of actually experiencing and feeling the words and sentences on the text. That’s what I’ve failed to realize all this time, and I will make a concerted effort to finally stop trying to rush and frantically zoom my way through a process as beautiful as reading.

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

Originally published on June 16, 2020 on Publishous

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

Baltimore, MD
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