Monday, April 25, 2011

Milk & Meaning

Surf is such an appropriate word for the way we consume ideas on the Internet. It’s fast and smooth, and it stays on the surface. With a few notable exceptions, what I do on the Internet isn’t reading at all; it’s surfing and it’s skimming, as if meaning could be skimmed off the surface of text like cream from milk.

For a second there, I thought I’d come up with the metaphor of milk and meaning all on my own. But duh — we call it skimming for exactly that reason: we assume that meaning in a text acts like fat in milk, in both cases the best parts rising to the top for easy removal. In the case of skimming a text, you might miss an elegant flourish, a sense of style, and you might not enjoy it as much — but you still get the meaning.

But does meaning really rise to the surface? Can you miss the tone but still get the meaning?

Well, yes — of course you can. I don’t have to suffer through a food blogger’s life story to get her recipe for quick pickles, or read more than an article’s headline to learn that “Taliban Help Hundreds Escape via Prison Tunnel.” The pyramid structure of a newspaper article is designed for skimming: put the important stuff in the first paragraph, because most people won’t stick around for much more.

But after a while, digesting meaning this way makes me physically sick, as if pure ideas, detached from language, were empty calories. A few hours of surfing the Internet and I don’t even want to look at a text. When I read something slowly and carefully, I have a much better time. A good, close read makes me want to talk to people! Write things! Read more! Close reading can’t make us enjoy everything, but it can probably help us enjoy a lot more.

So am I saying that skimming allows you to access meaning, only you don’t enjoy it as much? Well, no, I don’t think I am. Because if you don’t enjoy something, you don't digest it well, and you probably can't extract as much meaning from it. Skimming is quick and light — you get ideas without texture. Slow reading lets you feel the grain of language, and, to push the digestion metaphor a little more, to let all your intestinal villi work their magic. If meaning happens where reader and writer touch, you almost have to enjoy a text to understand it. I like that: enjoyment as a mode of understanding.