About selective reading
Selective reading matters for knowledge work, education, publishing, and an informed citizenry
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
Sir Francis Bacon, "Of Studies," 1625
Bacon understood the need for selective reading, but in nearly 400 years surprisingly little has been done to facilitate selective reading within texts. Meanwhile the need has grown much greater.
In our era of information overload, knowledge workers have more to read than they have time for. Selective reading is now a professional survival skill.
Even leisure-time readers appear to increasingly resist longer texts, especially non-fiction. In addition, smart phone displays discourage extended reading.
One solution is to publish shorter texts (e.g., Kindle Singles), but doing so risks superficial coverage of complex topics. Consider a 75-page book about US foreign policy in the Middle East. A reader with an interest in the Gulf War will likely not be satisfied with the 2 or 3 pages she’s likely to find in such a book. A QuikScan edition enables a condensed read, but allows readers to read in depth when they want to.
Here is a blueprint for the future:
- Publishers should avoid superficial books on substantive topics. Books should empower us to understand complex issues.
- Authors should recognize that their works are apt to be read selectively and therefore embrace designs that make selective reading successful.
- Technical communicators and information designers should create new designs and examine innovations they encounter.
- Instructors at all levels should teach selective reading as an essential literacy skill. A student who can read source materials selectively rather than fully and then write a first-rate research paper is heading for success. At higher levels of education, students should learn to write texts that support selective reading.
- Readers should value texts that enable selective reading. When the topic is complex, they should favor the 400-page book that supports selective reading over the superficial, 75-page alternative.