Skip to content

“Strategic Reading”: Renear at JATS-Con

“Strategic Reading”: Renear at JATS-Con published on

Video of JATS-Con 2013(4) is here: Day One; Day Two. My demo of visualizations of data encoded in NLM/JATS XML (or with adjustments, of any XML data) starts around 2:46 of Day Two (I went first in the open session).

But the reason for my post today is Allen Renear’s keynote. (Well worth the watch, it starts at Day Two, 4:58.) As always, Allen is both revelatory, and provocative. Every time I hear him, things come into better focus: where all this is coming from, where it’s aiming, and where the rub is happening between fundamental principles, and present-day exigencies.

His talk last week was on what he calls “strategic reading”, which I think is both profoundly incisive, and in its way troubling. Incisive because this is, indeed, the shape of things to come. What Allen describes sounds correct, both as a description of what is happening, and as a tendency and a trend. Troubling because I, for one, can’t help be concerned about what we risk losing next to what we gain.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favor of “strategic reading”, and I do quite a bit of it myself. Allen is describing the way we now scan and read at once, dipping in and out, making assessments at a distance, making choices even before we read, before we commit time and effort to deeper engagement. Electronic media and (where we have it) the strong encoding behind it (behindĀ them, I am quick to correct myself) facilitate this inasmuch as they allow us to aggregate and filter according to criteria selected in advance–to foreground, highlight and dramatize significant content before we even know it is there. (Back to my demo on visualization of document structures.) Especially in an age of information overload, when so much of what we see is only a distraction, this is necessary and inescapable. We will even have serendipity engines, or so they tell us. (Unless that’s another case of Artificial Intelligence Meets Natural Stupidity.)

Yet at the same time, the other voice says this isn’t really reading, but a strategic avoidance of reading. Not that that isn’t perfectly fine, in its way (we’re certainly not going to read all that stuff). But it doesn’t offer the rewards that I once learned can be won, with effort, from a well-wrought text, serving as an occasion for a kind of contest of mind, a discipline of attention with an unknown outcome.

So much of what we “learn” isn’t learning at all, but only reinforcement. We only become more like what we were already (as Gertrude Stein said of Americans between the wars). I can’t help but wonder whether this is enough. I also want to be changed by what I read.