Skipping stones

A Reading Note

As we read, we build up an understanding of the text from small pieces. Our eyes travel along the lines in a series of jumps called “saccades.”…An experienced reader or one who is familiar with the subject fixates for shorter periods and uses longer saccades, enabling him to take in over three hundred words per minute.

Unger, While You’re Reading, page 64

When demonstrated on the page, a saccade is drawn as a parabola that touches down on a letter, reverses course, flies over a word or two, and touches down again, much like the bouncing ball sing-along hints you may remember from Sesame Street. This suggests another way of thinking about the reading process—in which reading is akin to skipping stones.

A beginner reader will skip once, perhaps twice, then sink. But an experienced reader will skip for pages without effort, barely noticing the brief dips into the lake, attuned instead to the moments in the air—during which the lake disappears and is replaced by the images and sounds that the text depicts. She flies above the text, and the text transforms into a reflection of the writer’s world.

It’s that sense of being in the air that defines reading—what we also refer to as being “lost” in the text. We no longer see words, we no longer notice the music in the coffee shop or the sound of construction next door—we see the images that the text conjures in our mind, images whose foundation is built by the writer but whose final existence we create ourselves.

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While You’re Reading

Gerard Unger

Directed at the layman instead of the serious typographer, Unger’s book is a breezy overview of the science of reading.