Skimming is more than a mechanism for coping with too much text — it designates words as a medium to be seen rather than read

We are bombarded by the written word constantly. Text messages, Twitter feeds, Instagram captions, quippy, binge-worthy Netflix copy, and inflammatory news — the procession never ends, often rendering the text’s content secondary to the feeling of immersion in the cycle. Word marks become watermarks, leaving behind only an impression of their inherent meaning to be swept up with a million other impressions that collectively grant the feeling of perpetually becoming well-informed. Conversations, too, are contorted: Books, multipart investigative reports, and headlines are brought up and discarded just as quickly, as though all parties have already had some version of the discussion elsewhere.

It’s impossible to have read more than a fraction of the texts that become cultural touchstones, let alone all the texts we actually cast our eyes over and read. Seeing text is often all that’s necessary to construct and maintain an ethos. As text available approaches infinity, reading becomes reinvented less as a matter of comprehension or interpretation then as something visual and affective.

As art that must be adapted to a body, tattoos are uniquely suited to warping text into an image. A beloved line is wrapped like a spiral around a bicep, lines of poetry wedged into the spaces between ribs

An old word for the kind of reading that so much text demands is skimming. That term is often taken as derogatory, suggestive as it is of a shortcut that cheats the reader of the experience the author intended. It also implies a willingness to embrace quantity over quality, tacitly assuming that the original form of a text is worth less than the kernels of insight contained in that form. The focus on comprehension is misdirected: Those arguments lose sight of skimming’s ability to facilitate the transformation of text into an aesthetic that forces a sensual response rather than an intellectual one.

The aesthetic of text — the medium created once all those letters are assembled into an overwhelming whole that renders many of its individual words or fragments meaningless — is best understood through tattoos. As art that must be adapted to a body, tattoos are uniquely suited to warping text into an image. A beloved line is wrapped like a spiral around a bicep, or lines of poetry wedged into the spaces between ribs. The content is necessary to their appeal, naturally, but not always more so than the appeal of the gentle arcs and serifs of the letters, the way they appear to have been typed on flesh.

It’s easy to mock having a tattoo of a literary quote — the melodrama of having a string of words permanently legible on skin — but what could testify more profoundly to the idea that the meaning of words are only a small component of their power? But of course I’d think that: I have a portion of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler on my back. A paragraph and a half of the book are written on the left side of my spine, styling it into an irregular, pimply page.

Why get a tattoo like this? If the strangers who have stopped me on the beach to ogle it are any guide, reading comprehension doesn’t come easy when the text you’re engaging with is rhythmically expanding and contracting with the bearer’s breath. Most will nod sheepishly, say “cool,” and ask me how long it took. It’s appropriate, then, that the passage in question is more about not reading than reading.

In the novel, a reader professes:

If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it.

“I understand you perfectly,” another reader answers, explaining that

reading is a discontinuous and fragmentary operation. Or, rather, the object of reading is a punctiform and pulviscular material. In the spreading expanse of the writing, the reader’s attention isolates some minimal segments, juxtapositions of words, metaphors, syntactic nexuses, logical passages, lexical peculiarities that prove to possess an extremely concentrated density of meaning. They are like elemental particles making up the work’s nucleus, around which all the rest revolves. Or else like the void at the bottom of a vortex which sucks in and swallows currents. It is through these apertures that, in barely perceptible flashes, the truth the book may bear is revealed, its ultimate substance.

Reading, for these two characters, is not about comprehension so much as it is about affective response. The first reader styles books as rabbit holes that one can fall into endlessly; the text itself serves as little more than a trapdoor. The other imagines text to be composed of particles that must be thrown centrifugally away from “its ultimate substance” for whatever “truth” the book contains to be revealed. This, in turn, suggests the overwhelming “volume” of any text is composed of empty space without which its “essence” could not, nevertheless, exist. The pages of a book are reimagined as a negative space where meaning resides inherently, rather than as legible sentences that must be decoded in order to be understood.

Writing divorced from content: That feels more like what we engage with every day on our phones or a stranger’s wrist than what is evoked by the phrase “get lost in a book”

Both of Calvino’s readers render writing as an aesthetic object that you respond to the way you might a painting — content is of tangential importance, just as the identity of the subjects of Caravaggio’s portraits are less significant than the fidelity of the light he bathes them in.

Writing divorced from content: That feels more like what we engage with every day on our phones or a stranger’s wrist than what is evoked by the phrase “get lost in a book.” Why get lost in just one, when the very aesthetic of text itself is available?

Literature scholar Franco Moretti approaches the infinite mass of text differently. Rather than be carried away on its constant stream, he attempts to reduce books into data points, eschewing close reading of individual novels in favor of identifying the trends between them. Hailed as “a great iconoclast” and ribbed as “a mythopoetic figure,” it’s natural to style him as the Nate Silver of his field, the man who would leverage Big Data to reveal truths about literature no amount of close reading ever could. In his book Graphs, Maps, Trees, he replaces the essayistic arguments expected of a book of literary scholarship with a series of data visualizations “in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction.”

This process makes for unpersuasive literary analysis (some of the chief insights of Graphs, Maps, Trees include that an amazing array of genres appeared in 19th-century England and that novels set in pre-industrial towns tend to capture circumscribed lives), but the forms Moretti creates through it are nonetheless instructive as to the demands literary scholarship must meet if it is to be done on a massive scale.

We already experience the aesthetic of text affectively. Our visual world is as likely to be made up of text as it is pictures, video, and charts

It’s an idea worth getting used to: More narrowly focused visualizations are now common traffic drivers on book blogs like Lithub and the Millions. Take this graph by Emily Temple, which encapsulates the data from the book-size listicle Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, and this representation by Giorgia Lupi of Harold Bloom’s study Genius. These graphics are easier on the eyes then the procession of spartan images that populate Graphs, Maps, Trees, but they share the same purpose: to provide an easily consumable aesthetic representation of an enormous number of words. Visualizations — of immigration to the U.S., of Usain Bolt’s meteoric running, of the most popular operas staged at the Met  — are the logical extension of skimming; publications (and their advertisers) seem more than happy to provide them and facilitate their readers’ intake of as much material as possible. That Lupi’s version of Genius is bewildering and that Temple’s charts offer little insight (famous writers, it turns out, like reading Shakespeare and Tolstoy) is beside the point. These charts and visualizations boil literature down to a signifier that can be shared on a timeline, one that evokes the feeling of having read a lot without having done so. A smaller commitment than a literary tattoo, they clutter a timeline along with posts tagged with #NaNoWriMo and #amwriting to create the appearance of a writer, no traditional “literary credentials” required.

Visualizations, like tattoos, cast the viewer as Calvino’s first reader, the one who glorified books that set him off on “an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies.” This method of reading is easy to fall into now, a fact that would surely be applauded by many of the 20th-century writers who sought to create a united textual aesthetic by fusing the visual appearance of the page with the meaning of its words. Virginia Woolf had something similar in mind when she published her original version of Jacob’s Room on the Hogarth Press and included woodcut illustrations and paragraphs perplexingly separated by varying amounts of space, as did W.G. Sebald, who wedged photographs into his hulking paragraphs such that reading him requires a constant reckoning between images and their interpretations.

Such books were written to try to shake readers out a mechanistic mode of sentence decoding; readers today need little impetus to not attend exclusively to the words. The formal experiments B.S. Johnson attempted in Albert Angelo — cutting holes in pages, for instance, or printing two characters’ perspectives in mirrored columns on the same page — are the kind of trickery any programmer can achieve with a WordPress template.

The experimental prodding that authors relied on in the analog word are beside the point now: We already experience the aesthetic of text affectively. After all, our visual world is as likely to be made up of text as it is pictures, video, and charts. We disassemble the text in front of us to get at what’s resonant and then, like Moretti, assemble a private map of all we know and how it connects together. We find the passages to engrave into ourselves, the pull quotes that determine the rhythms of our life. For the skimmers, the visualizers, the Big Data evangelists, and the 19-year-old version of myself infatuated with the notion of typing on skin — for all of us words are more than words. Their significance goes far beyond connotation.

Kyle Paoletta’s work has appeared in the New York Times MagazineHarper’s, and the Nation. He is a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.