Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Deep Reading

"Deep Reading" as defined by Alice Jacobs in an article called "We Can't Teach Students to Read" in the Chronicle of Higher Education came to my attention because of the Arts and Letters Daily -- a link in my sidebar here. The link is part of my problem which Jacobs touches on but doesn't address - it's not her bailiwick, but it is mine. I am an addicted deep reader and have been most of my life. To me, and probably to most deep readers, this means being a slow reader. Jacobs tells us that until the sudden boom in college educations with the GI Bill after WWII a very small percent of Americans had college educations and an equally small percent read much of anything, let alone big serious books read in depth. Oh, yes, there has always been that layer of readers but they've always been the minority. After far more people learned to read in depth thanks to college, we are now moving into another period when deep reading is becoming rarer even though now the college educated numbers are huge. Why? Because there is too much to read and too much to distract and too much to give pleasure that has nothing to do with deep reading, too much too do and too little time for reading of any sort.

After a meeting with four women, three of whom teach literature classes I said I wasn't taking any of their very interesting classes because there is just too much reading. They went on to talk about a list of recent fiction they had enjoyed and discussed in their various reading groups. I did not join in because I have no interest in most of those books. Later I thought how odd it must have sounded to say there is too much reading. But there is! All my life I have known I have limited time in a day and must ration my enthusiasms. I did not learn golf or tennis when I lived a suburban life although I thought I would enjoy both. I would not be able to take piano lessons, write, and do volunteer work if I were playing games.

I've applied this criteria to my reading most of my life although for many years I read the popular nonfiction books, I've always been very picky about fiction. Now with a truly finite time ahead, I am very careful what I read. But it is getting harder. I like blogs and read a few almost daily, and many others occasionally. I like links like the Arts and Literature Daily because they offer me articles on subjects that I find fascinating, like Jacob's in a publication I would never see otherwise. But I have learned to skim -- even that article. I get the daily NYTimes online and skim more rapidly than I would the paper edition. My AOL home page gives me hard news head lines and lot of junk. It is easy to skim what a celeb wore to a party and to merely glance at the always missing kids. I get national, international and local news in tiny tidbits and that is enough. I've begun skimming more often in the few magazines I get. Jacobs says we do not so much suffer information overload as filter failure. I try to fine tune my filter. I read 60 or more short stories last spring -- my choice -- never again! Most short stories aren't worth the time.

What do I read in depth? A few novels, rarely a best seller, usually not American or if American, authors with something new to tell me. If the main character is a teen - sorry -- I read Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye and many others. I've grown up, Don't need those touchstones any more. I like books by authors who tell me about cultures I do not live in. I deep read selected nonfiction books, I'm reading a biography very carefully right now. I cannot take courses that have me reading "great books" that I've read or that I've chosen not to read because I have two bookcases full of books I DO want to read.

Jacobs quotes Steve Pinker who said, "Children are hard wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted in." Clever but not exactly true. I believe I, and many other serious readers, either have an inborn temperament and/or early life experience that makes us readers. My friends, who read less selectively, are a bit younger and a bit less serious about literature, a bit younger and less aware of the march of time, perhaps a bit less curious about the world -- or I should say about the world beyond their own. (I mentioned Cutting for Stone, which most had read. I said I'd love to go to Ethiopia. No one else felt that way AT ALL!) A part of me I can't root out worries how my comments about reading sounded, a wiser part of me says, what does it matter? Perhaps I am hard wired to seek social approval but my taste and my search for meaning in what I read has long since been bolted on.



June -- I have very similar feelings about reading as you do. I have been a deep reader since I started to read. I agree that some experience when young threw me into the book bin and I come up breathing books. But it's a fine way to live and it's difficult to get bored as there is always another book around the corner. Sometimes I have 3 or 4 going. Always travel with books even for errands. Never know when I will have to wait while out. Non-fiction is about all I read -- few exceptions though. Enjoyed your post. Looked for a personal book list on your sidebar -- would be interesting to view your recommendations -- barbara

June Calender said...

Thanks, I can tell you're another deep reader. I too try to always have something to read available. I will consider a personal book list on my side bar although it's extremely eclectic.