Highlighting passages doesn’t aid my memory, but speaking them does

When I was in college, taking notes on textbooks and course readings, I often copied key passages into a notebook. There weren’t computers then, so like a medieval scribe I wrote out my selections longhand. Sometimes I added my own notes, sometimes not, but I never highlighted, even in books that I owned. Writing out the selections was a way to perform the work I was reading, record selections in my memory, and gain deeper access to the mind of the author.

Now we have computers, and the annotation software I help build at Hypothesis is ideal for personal note-taking. Close to half of all Hypothesis annotations are private notes, so clearly lots of people use it that way. For me, though, web annotation isn’t a private activity. I bookmark and tag web resources that I want to keep track of, and collaborate with others on document review, but I don’t use web annotation to enhance my private reading.

To be sure, I mostly read books and magazines in print. It’s a welcome alternative to the screens that otherwise dominate my life. But even when my private reading happens online, I don’t find myself using our annotation tool the way so many others do.

So, what’s a good way to mark and remember a passage in a book if you don’t want to highlight it, or in the case of a library book, can’t highlight it? I thought about the scribing I used to do in college, and realized there’s now another way to do that. Recently, when I read a passage in a book or magazine that I want to remember and contemplate, I’ve been dictating it into a note-taking app on my phone.

I’ve followed the evolution of speech-to-text technology with great interest over the years. When I reviewed Dragon NaturallySpeaking, I did what every reviewer does. I tried to use the tool to dictate my review, and got mixed results. Over time the tech improved but I haven’t yet adopted dictation for normal work. At some point I decided to forget about dictation software until it became something that civilians who weren’t early-adopter tech journos used in real life.

One day, when I received some odd text messages from Luann, I realized that time had arrived. She’d found the dictation feature on her phone. It wasn’t working perfectly, and the glitches were amusing, but she was using it in an easy and natural way, and the results were good enough.

I still don’t dictate to my computer. This essay is coming to you by way of a keyboard. But I dictate to my phone a lot, mostly for text messages. The experience keeps improving, and now this new practice — voicing passages that I read in books, in order to capture and remember them — seems to be taking hold.

I’m reminded of a segment in a talk given by Robert “R0ml” Lefkowitz at the 2004 Open Source Conference, entitled The Semasiology of Open Source (part 2), the second in a series structured as thesis (part 1), antithesis (part 2), and synthesis (part 3). ITConversation aptly described this luminous series of talks as “an intellectual joy-ride”; I’m going to revisit the whole thing on a hike later today.

Meanwhile, here’s a transcription of the segment I’m recalling. It appears during a review of the history of literacy. At this point we have arrived at 600 AD.

To be a reader was not to be the receiver of information, it was to be the transmitter of the information, because it was not possible to read silently. So things that were written were written as memory aids to the speaker. And the speaker would say the words to the listener. To read was to speak, and those were synonyms … The writing just lies there, whereas the speaking lifts it off the page. The writing is just there, but the speaking is what elevates the listener.

Had I merely read that passage I’m certain I would not remember it 14 years later. Hearing R0ml speak the words made an indelible impression. (Seeing him speak the words, of course, made it even more indelible.)

Silent reading, once thought impossible, had to be invented. But just because we can read silently doesn’t mean we always should, as everyone who’s read aloud to a young child, or to a vision-impaired elder, knows. It’s delightful that voice recognition affords new ways to benefit from the ancient practice of reading aloud.

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11 thoughts on “Highlighting passages doesn’t aid my memory, but speaking them does

  1. Wait wait wait. “It was not possible to read silently”?

    “Readers” were professionals who read aloud because the audience was illiterate or likely to be so, or because copies were expensive, or because performance was in the nature of the arrangement. We still have professional readers, and bills are still “read out” in the chambers of the legislature. But none of that has to do with the impossibility of looking at a written word and reading it without the mouth moving. This is the same kind of silliness that engenders debates about whether things can exist without names. You can also bet that a professional reader had some concerns that weren’t unlike professional readers’ today, and that a quick silent skim to mark the piece out, followed by rehearsal, when possible, was part of the prep before going in front of an audience. When you’re a performer, you’re always auditioning, no matter how long you’ve had the job.

    Anyway — I find my experience of speech is exactly opposite, but then I’m a writer, not a performer. When I hear speech, it comes up in my mind’s eye in bookface text, usually before the person’s finished saying the word. There’s no deliberate translation of it into “print”, it just goes, and there’s no trouble about that, maybe because reading goes much faster than speech does. As far as I can remember, it’s always happened — I first became aware of it as a thing that happened when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. It also makes recall of recent conversation relatively easy because it’s not hard to “reread” the text — it doesn’t stay in my mind’s eye, but if I think back I know whether that line looks familiar or not, and which words are uncertain.

    I’ve wondered if it’s connected to the tendency to see music synaesthetically as colors and shapes — no idea. Makes Bruckner pretty terrific, though I’m not sure he’d have been wild about the way my head connects his music with Odilon Redon.

    1. R0ml’s source is https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/232729.A_History_of_Reading

      The claim is not that it was physically impossible to read to oneself silently, but rather impossible because for a long time nobody had the idea to do so. Here’s the source; R0ml may have overstated slightly.


      Your synaesthesia sounds fascinating, never imagined that.

      Here’s an interesting thing that does happen to me. It just happened when I went back to the podcast to look up that book. I was out for a hike when I was listening to the podcast. When playing it back, and when I got near the segment I was looking for, I could visualize where I first heard what I was hearing on playback, and knew how far to go on the podcast scrollbar — and in which direction — in order to get to the right spot.

  2. A variation on this: using TTS as a sort of “looking over your shoulder” check on composition … sentence structure, grammar etc.
    Hearing things, egregious errors jump right out!

    1. True. I don’t think much about how things would sound when writing to be read. But when I’ve written talks — I know, you’re not supposed to, but sometimes I have to — I’m always surprised by how much tweaking is required to come up with a script that can be fluently read aloud.

      1. Absolutely yes, that is an art. One need only watch the tele-prompter outtakes for any commercial TV show and the complaint is about the text. I’m reminded of that scatological melt-down by Bill O’Reilly complaining how bad the text was and that he would “do it live”. It’s hard to write for fluently reading aloud, and you see it on nightly news broadcasts all the time when someone hitches on a word/phrase or has start over more than once to read the text as written.

      2. I think some of that is valid. I mean there might very well be tropes that work well as literature or even as technical writing, while sounding odd or forces as speech. And (HTML test) vice versa.

      3. Addendum: Something I noticed regularly while translating engineer speak into technician speak (avionics R&D; MilSpec tech_docs … exhaustively detailed!):
        A phrase that appears pellucid to the author can often be confounding in reality. Is why I so often actually read my drafts from back to front, to break what I called “narrative flow”. Reason I brought up engineers? because they so often took offense! :-)

  3. Jon
    (hi from way back when)
    You might like to know that Walter Benjamin wrote in Chinese Curios, 1928

    The power of a text is different when read from when it is copied out.
    The mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner-self that are opened by the text.
    Because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming whereas the copier submits it to command.

  4. Thanks for the head-up about that!

    I consulted Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (Flamingo), which was published in the same year as Gavrilov’s and Burnyeat’s articles. Manguel believes that the passage in Augustine is “the first definite instance [of silent reading] recorded in western literature”. He is well aware of the evidence to the contrary, but he finds it unconvincing.

    I wonder if R0ml’s source, Steven Roger Fischer, got his info from Manguel?

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