The scandalous emergence of ‘deep reading’
published on 08.09.21
Recently I had a conversation with a teacher about digital technologies and young people, during which he used the expression ‘deep reading’. I was struck by the expression and asked him what it meant. His answer was: “’Deep reading’ is the process of reading attentively and carefully in order to maximize understanding and enjoyment of a text. It contrasts sharply with the skimming, or superficial reading, of a text”. “In other words”, I said, “‘deep reading’ is what we have done all our lives”. It seems that for dinosaurs like myself, who learned to read on paper (although not on wax tablets or papyrus), the answer is “Yes”. What is happening is that, in these times of ‘information overload’, with a lot of written text and many languages available everywhere, we (including some dinosaurs) have become accustomed to ‘passing over’ the words, retaining only a vague idea of their import – just enough to know what they are about. This is the skimming that we mentioned above.
Obviously, for older people, this is not a serious difficulty, because, for them, skimming is a secondary skill that was learned after they had learned to read. So we are still able to sit down with a good novel, tale, essay, or article and disconnect ourselves from the world to submerge ourselves in a parallel world through reading, enjoying not only the ideas contained in the text but also the playing on the words, their rhythm, their (mental) sonority, their novelty or their familiarity.
But what happens if, ever since you learned to read, you have spent most of your time skimming? If you have never known the delight of reading that I have just described, so that, for you, the delight is the feeling that you know everything that is happening, because, after all, the details can be seen on some YouTube video? Then, reading as we, the pre-internet generation, knew it becomes a remote skill, hard to acquire, the preserve of a few privileged people, like playing a musical instrument, practicing Olympic gymnastics, or imitating birdsong. And that is what shocks me. No! If you, dear reader, have reached this point, even by skimming, (the bold type is intentional), I have to tell you that this situation should not have arisen. Reading, invented together with writing, has accompanied mankind for four or five thousand years. All those generations, who had more time and fewer ‘inputs’, practiced ‘deep reading’ before you did. They were certainly people with less training and less mental capacity.
There is no reason why reading needs to be ‘deep’ for you. It is as simple as sitting in a quiet place, with a text in your hands, to let yourself be wrapped in the thread of words which another person, or other people, took the time to weave for your delight and your education.
Author: Gabriel Zúñiga
Director of studies at TBS in Barcelona