human reading

human reading

Simon Browne

see also skimming, technologising the word

There are many different reasons why you might read something, but essentially, reading involves skimming (reading to get the main idea of a text) or scanning (looking for specific information in details). This often happens in tandem---skimming the catalogue to see what the interest of the library is, and then scanning to see if a particular text has been included---and has relations to other modes of information retrieval, e.g. browsing/searching.

In 1977, while facing a skeptical audience in a Q & A session broadcast live on Australian television, Marshall McLuhan argued “the word read means to guess -- look it up in the big dictionary. Reading is an activity of rapid guessing because any word has so many meanings -- including the word reading -- that to select one in a context of other words requires very rapid guessing. That’s why a good reader tends to be a very quick decision-maker.”1 This is very true of human reading, where multiple interpretations lead to various equivalent understandings of a text, but false when applied to machine reading, which only operates with predefined ways of interpreting text.


Image: A quote from Marshall McLuhan during a live television broadcast, 1977


  1. McLuhan, M., Available here