What Is Deep Reading and Why It Is Important
I've noticed the people in my life don't read much anymore, and it makes me a little sad. When asked, they'll usually shrug and say they don't have time. Or if they're more candid, they'll admit they can't concentrate long enough to finish an entire book anymore. My anecdotal evidence skews even more sharply away from reading when I talk to younger people who have lived in front of screens since childhood.
My son has grown up surrounded by books but equates reading with drudgery. He and his friends live their social lives primarily online; books are only read when assigned. The assigned reading they do in school doesn't help. It checks all the right diversity boxes while doing nothing to ignite a teenage boy's imagination to read for pleasure.
It's different today than when I was a kid growing up in the 1980s. Kids now find a dizzying array of online entertainment options that eat away their free time. Even many adults who remember a simpler time before the Net often struggle to escape its pull. Reading as a pastime is sliding down the list of things to do for all age groups.
This creates a curious demographic, what playwright Richard Foreman called "Pancake People," or those "...spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button." Pancake people trade depth for breadth, knowing a little bit about a lot while lacking the concentration to go any deeper.
Nicholas Carr called this "the Shallows," and he devoted an entire book to describe a process he saw taking place, not only in himself but also in society. With so much intense competition for his attention online, he found himself spread thin and losing the desire to read books. Like me, he understood that the Internet was a great boon for so many things - shopping, travel, entertainment, personal finance, and convenience, to name a few. But when they are available instantaneously at our fingertips, they can become toxic to our concentration.
So this "great boon" comes at a price.
As Carr puts it, "...what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I'm online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles." (Carr 7)
Carr is not alone. An entire sub-genre of non-fiction exists devoted to this relatively recent phenomenon of devoted readers suddenly struggling to read anymore. Maryanne Wolf addresses it in her recent book, Reader, Come Home. David Ulin's Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time does as well. Adam Garfinkle's must-read article in National Affairs is one of the best essays I've come across about the decline of deep reading.
Writer Sven Birkerts' "Changing the Subject" eloquently laments the negative impact digital technologies have on his reading habits. Philip Yancey wrote about his realization that reading went from being an intellectually rewarding activity to hard work.
"My crisis consists in the fact that I am describing my past, not my present. I used to read three books a week. One year I devoted an evening each week to read all of Shakespeare’s plays (Okay, due to interruptions it actually took me two years). Another year I read the major works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work." (Philip Yancey - Washington Post)
Does all that sound depressingly familiar? Do the people in your life read much anymore? Do you? More specifically, are you still a deep reader? By that, I mean, are you someone who can regularly sit down, immerse yourself in a text, and follow an argument or plot from start to finish? Deep readers are the cognitive equivalent of well-conditioned athletes, focusing disciplined minds for extended periods on whatever they are reading. I'm going to argue that technology is making this skill increasingly tricky to cultivate. The decline of deep reading will have profound consequences, not only on our cognitive well-being but on that of our society as well.
How Deep Literacy Made All This Possible
So what's the big deal? First, it's essential to keep in mind what a remarkable thing reading is. Unlike language, the human brain did not evolve to read or write. That's a relatively recent phenomenon. For tens of thousands of years, humans remained oral creatures. Writing only came about much later. It's not something that comes naturally, and each generation must learn how to do it.
Literacy made civilization possible by taking knowledge and expertise and codifying them in a written format that could be passed on. Knowledge could then escape the mind's confines, becoming portable, durable, and transferable from one person to the next and one generation to the next. This gradual accumulation of knowledge via literacy represents the earliest tangible idea of progress.
Simply put, intricate ideas and concepts don't endure without writing. Jesus and Socrates wrote nothing down and would have vanished into oblivion if someone had not told their stories. How many brilliant minds are lost to history because nothing was written down? Brilliant or not, without the written word, those ideas were as transient as the mortal minds holding them.
For centuries, a tiny cadre of elites closely guarded the secret of literacy. Before the modern era (circa 1700 CE), history is primarily the story of these literate elites. Literacy made them the guardians of society's cultural heritage, forming a chain of continuity linking past, present, and future. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Chinese civilizations are great examples where the written word preserved cultural continuity for hundreds and even thousands of years.
Meanwhile, the illiterate masses lived and died in mute anonymity, unable to compete with their educated masters. The literacy of the elites made them qualitatively superior to everyone else. They alone could study philosophy, read and interpret the holy texts, and write down laws. Their mental horizons were vaster by orders of magnitude, giving them the tools needed to define social reality and maintain order.
Only in the last two hundred years has the democratization of literacy changed all this. The world we live in is radically different from before, with literacy rates approaching one hundred percent in most developed nations. Now everyone can read, even if they choose not to.
Today, our collective reality is framed by an incredibly sophisticated accumulation of ideas on social justice, politics, philosophy, and religion. These and every other product of human progress are the offspring of deep literacy. The significant aspect of literacy's democratization is that now everyone can expand their mental horizons beyond the immediate, not just a tiny caste of elites. The average person can, in theory, become a profoundly nuanced thinker with the tools to navigate epistemological complexity.
As I'll show, reading is neither innate nor a given, but a skill we use or lose.
The Cognitive Benefits of Deep Reading
Cognitive Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf writes about the benefits of deep reading,
"My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading." Maryanne Wolf
The more we read, the better our reading-brain gets, giving us access to those characteristics that Dr. Wolf describes. The reading brain becomes a critically thinking brain, better able to analyze complexity. As we read, we are continually adding background knowledge that exists beyond our immediate experience. That then becomes a valuable reservoir to draw upon as we navigate our way through life.
Similarly, analogical reasoning lets us make connections between abstract ideas and direct experience. According to Dr. Wolf, "The more we know, the more we can draw analogies, and the more we can use those analogies to infer, deduce, analyze, and evaluate our past assumptions—all of which increases and refines our growing internal platform of knowledge." (Wolf)
By way of analogy, think of that "growing internal platform of knowledge" as a form of intellectual capital that accumulates like interest over time. And like capital, the more you have, the more it grows, creating a virtuous cycle of ever-increasing intellectual refinement.
So it is also with knowledge and insight: the more you have, the better you'll be at dealing with the sheer complexity of existence. Deep reading is a fantastic way of making deposits into your own sovereign wealth fund of the mind. Over time, as your knowledge and insight grow, so will improve your ability to deploy better the skills of critical thinking, analogy, deduction, empathy, not to mention the dying art of reevaluating dearly held assumptions.
The Cognitive Cost of Not Deep Reading
This works both ways, though. The non-reader is word-poor and imagination-impoverished. They lack the background knowledge and multi-dimensional perspective that years of deep reading give a person. When those are lacking, one risks getting trapped in the Lilliputian perspective of the ego. Such people don't know what they don't know and don't have the thinking tools available to comprehend reality beyond their direct experience.
The word-poor non-reader comes poorly equipped to adjudicate between the competing versions of reality they confront every day online. Examining external facts is difficult because they do not read book-length arguments that challenge assumptions. These minds drift on the surface of cultural currents they cannot even begin to understand. This makes them vulnerable to propaganda and conspiracy thinking, both of which are methods of simplifying a complex world for those unable to do so themselves.
The danger is that proficient deep readers let this ability atrophy and end up lost in the cacophony of the modern media carnival. Our deep reading skills wither when we accustom ourselves to the shallow content that dominates so much of today's online experience. We get used to superficial skim reading and passively consuming digital content with minimal effort. Over time, deeper forms of reading become too challenging and something to be avoided.
Sven Birkerts calls cyberspace an intransitive and centrifugal medium, with no center, no object, no core around which to ground oneself. You go online and everything becomes open-ended, transient, forgettable, fragmented, and fleeting. The experience is passive and external. We bounce from one vicarious experience to another with neither rhyme nor reason beyond the subtle nudges of AI algorithms. Cyberspace connects us to the web and then dumps us into a sea of chaotic information that gradually disconnects us from direct, lived experience.
Reading, Birkerts argues, is just the opposite. Reading is transitive and centripetal. We center on the text and only the text. A book is an object with an objective, a kind of silent communion between two minds. The writer conveys complex ideas and layered nuance that the reader must work to untangle and decipher. This is a slow, deliberative process that requires sustained attention. (Birkerts 168)
What about "digital-based modes of reading?"
But what about e-books, you may ask? Are they a compromise option? Doesn't the proliferation of e-books show that reading can thrive in a digital environment? Yes, but only with difficulty since e-books are in precarious proximity to the very distractions they are competing against.
This is what Marshall McLuhan was talking about when he argued that changing a medium's form equals changing how we engage it. A traditional print book is not the same as an e-book. The way we engage with the latter becomes fundamentally different when done from a screen. A print book exists offline and further away from the irresistible gravity well of the Internet.
E-books, however, reside on the same devices that gobble up so much of our time. Tell me, are you really going to read Crime and Punishment on a Kindle? It's possible but will take more discipline than reading a print copy would. An array of attention getters - notifications, emails, instant messages - loom ever-present to seduce you away from that e-book. E-books have become just another leisure option on an already crowded digital menu, including Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Given those options, it should come as no surprise where our time goes in this lopsided struggle.
Unfortunately, the trends are not encouraging. There is a passionate reading public still out there (I am one of them, and you most certainly are as well if you made it this far), but readers today are sailing against a strong headwind. Our ability to stay engaged long enough to finish a book is fading at a slow but steady rate. Meanwhile, television and the Internet have joined forces (Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, etc.) in recent years to create a two-headed streaming juggernaut that threatens to stomp into ever-smaller shards what little remains of our fragmented attention.
Will Democracy Die With Our Attention Span?
I want to make an even bolder claim: that as our attention autonomy withers, so goes our ability to manage a healthy democracy governed by well-informed citizens. In other words, the cognitive benefits of deep reading represent an under-valued guardrail for democracy. Remember, democracy has always been susceptible to misinformation and demagogues, and today's media technologies make it frighteningly easy to fool a whole lot of people at once.
Victims of misinformation don't know they are being manipulated because they haven't developed the intellectual tools needed to step back and critically examine ideas and concepts. If you doubt my premise, look around. We're a little more than a decade into the social media revolution and society is fragmenting like our attention spans.
Social media platforms like Twitter that promote more shallow forms of reading have facilitated the rise of a new generation of populist demagogues able to spoon-feed bite-sized bits of propaganda to the public. Readers increasingly get their news from social media news feeds that subtly nudge them toward ever more partisan content. Before his social media ban, the former American President was the most successful example whereby millions of Americans got their ground truth from his Twitter feed rather than traditional news sources. Is this recent triumph of shallow reading a harbinger of things to come? Time will tell.
Don't get me wrong; deep reading isn't some cure-all for our social ills. Hardly. You can have deep readers who go off the deep end and become autodidactic amateur scholars of conspiracy. Still, I would argue that they are the outliers. I am convinced that the decline of deep reading and the nuance it cultivates will mean the gradual disappearance of civil society. We'll lack the perspective-taking and empathy skills that habitual deep readers have access to that enable us to see the other side as decent human beings, even when we disagree.
It also means an erosion of our ability to grapple with wickedly complex problems, which are stacking up as I type. It's terrifying if you think about it: our civilization is incredibly complex, and our technologies have become so advanced that they seem like magic. Yet, it rests precariously perched on the accumulated knowledge of centuries. How ironic it would be that the sheer sophistication of the modern world made us too stupid to maintain it!
Are you still with me, dear Reader?
Since you are reading these words, you are of that dying tribe who can still shut out the noise of the modern media circus long enough to read for a while. You can still slow down and deliberate.
I salute you!
Still, there's a sad irony here, isn't there? I've written this essay on a blog that only exists online. The same technology I'm so wary of has made this interaction possible. To read it, you'll have to be right beside those online temptations that would keep you from getting this far. In fact, most of you will only find this essay on social media.
So I recognize that the potential here is enormous. Thanks to the Internet, I can publish for free directly to a worldwide audience without gatekeepers locking me out because I don't have the proper credentials or connections. The Net has democratized expression in ways that have never existed. It's one of those very real tech boons that I mentioned above.
I get that. Nevertheless, I must compete for your attention in a game rigged against me. I'm trying to convince people to slow down - if only for a little while - and reconnect with reading, to begin rewiring those neurons to foster deep reading again. But I'm doing so against competition that is, to be quite honest, much more entertaining and easier to digest, not to mention easier to find. Does anyone really want to click on a deep read about deep reading?
I'm betting that at least some of you do, and some of you are enough for me.
So I'll persist in this quixotic quest to promote reading and continue to do so even if I am fighting for a lost cause deep in enemy-occupied territory. That's where the lost souls are at, anyway.
Finally, whatever world this ends up becoming in the next few decades, I'll never discard the extra-dimensionality and texture a lifetime of deep reading has given me. I have stacks of books containing the most profound ideas from some of humanity's greatest minds, both living and dead.
Think about that for a minute: we can pick up a book whenever we want and commune with Plato, Hume, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Dante, Steinbeck, Aurelius, Woolf, Tolstoy, Augustine, and countless others far better and wiser than we will ever be. They don't need our money or clicks; they don't care who said what on Twitter. They're just waiting to be read.
It's wisdom and insight there for the taking.
The only thing you have to pay is attention.
Birkerts, Sven. Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age. Graywolf Press, 2015.
Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W.W. Norton, 2011.
Wolf, Maryanne. “Reader, Come Home: the Reading Brain in a Digital World.” Amazon, Harper, 2019, www.amazon.com/Reader-Come-Home-Reading-Digital/dp/0062388789.
Arles, France October 2020