Monday, January 29, 2018

Andrew Elfenbein's "The Gist of Reading"

Andrew Elfenbein is Professor of English at the University of Minnesota.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Gist of Reading, and reported the following:
In terms of the “page 99” test, this page in my book does not reveal the quality of the whole, but it does address a central strand of the book. Page 99 of The Gist of Reading comes near the end of a chapter about the differences between online and offline reading. These terms do not quite mean what you think they might mean. It would seem that “online” reading ought to refer to reading on a computerized device, like a laptop or smartphone. I use these terms, instead, as psychologists who study reading use them: “online” reading is what happens while you are reading and actively perceiving letters, words, and sentences. “Offline” reading involves what you do with what you have read after you have finished: what happens in your memory to what you have read?

The human mind does strange things to how people read. Short-term memory is, in general, weak: by the time you finish a medium-sized paragraph, your ability to reproduce verbatim any sentence in that paragraph is not good. Indeed, you will have forgotten most of the words in a paragraph by the time you finish it. That seems as if it should be a serious barrier to understanding: how can you understand something if you forget most of it? Recognizing the offline component of reading allows scientists to focus on this question. Skilled readers know how to select the most important elements of what they read and create meaningful connections between those elements. They retain what psychologists call a “mental model” of the text, that consists not of verbatim memory but of a coherent abstraction of it.

Yet more goes into that model than just an abstraction of the work. As readers read, they use their background knowledge to fill in information that the work does not state explicitly. Moreover, they may make predictions about what will happen next, ask questions about the action, evaluate the quality of the work, and wonder about their own understanding. If such reactions are important enough, they, too, may enter a reader’s mental model, even though they are not part of the work. As a result, paradoxically, a mental model for something read contains little language that is actually in a work, and may contain quite a bit of information that is not in the work at all.
Learn more about The Gist of Reading at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue