Saturday, December 19, 2009

Deep reading

"Deep reading", a term I came across in some casual [definitely not deep] reading referred to The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts. Oh, I've got that book, I remembered. I've had it maybe three years. What does he call deep reading? I thought it would be pondering the philosophers or digging into literature as the New Critics did mid-20th century dissecting structure, etc. Happily not the latter although I studied with New Critics way back when. And strangely not the former which surprised me.

Birkerts believes that serious literary novels have a deep impact, they change our personality because we live the experiences within the story as vividly [sometimes more so] as our own lives. He believes those of us who read intensely acquire complex ways of seeing the world and [in my words] live a more richly nuanced life. I've looked for quotable take-outs to quote but he is not that kind of writer. He emphasizes, as I would also, that the novels must be literary, serious writing. For example, we white readers can know the worlds of black experience through Toni Morrison with reality that would be impossible otherwise. This, of course extends to writers in other countries and of other time periods. I have lately explained to friends that I rarely read American writers because I know American life, I would rather read Coetze or Julian Barnes [as I am right now], a Norwegian, German, Chinese, Indian writer, etc. to see the world their characters live in.
Birkerts' book was mostly reviewed because he believes such reading is in danger of disappearing, that, in fact, books as we know and love them, are on their way out of general use. I hope he's a premature alarmist but, sadly, I think it may be true. What is disturbing is the shallowness of experience available to people who do not read, the visual media which is omnipresent does not contain the layers of psychology and story telling and experience available in the novels of fine writers.

It's a huge subject, I'll be pondering it a long time, meanwhile reading as many good novels as I can, mixed in with nonfiction which may not change my personality but gives me perspectives consider. [Top picture if Mary Cassatt, bottom is Berthe Marisot]


Jonas said...

Studies have shown that, by and large, corporate CEO's are voracious readers (it's the ONLY common trait).

Reading offer anwers/questions no other venue can.

June Calender said...

I know quite a few people who are voracious readers [none of them CEOs], they devour mysteries, chick lit, romance, fantasy, etc. ... Reading a lot and reading "deeply" are very different as Birkerts emphasizes.