Is deep reading becoming a thing of the past?
Some worry that many find it hard to stick with one book and read to comprehend.
Contra Costa Times
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — The Oakland, Calif., apartment of Martha Mueller and her daughter, Nora, teems with books and magazines. Their library consists of fiction and nonfiction books, cookbooks and teen novels. Martha, a librarian, says she'll read just about anything.
"It can be the subject matter that attracts me or that perfectly written first sentence," she says.
She comprehends what she reads, too. Ask for her thoughts on the "Millennium Trilogy" by Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, for example, and she'll weave a tale about how the books, while interesting reads, seem overly violent. The main character is a victim, she says, and a sad one at that.
While Mueller loves sitting down with a good book, she may represent a vanishing breed. There is some concern in literary circles that, even though electronic readers grow increasingly popular and book sales are still strong, many people are finding it difficult to sit alone with one book and simply read to comprehend.
"Deep reading," or slow reading, is a sophisticated process in which people can critically think, reflect and understand the words they are looking at. With most, that means slowing down — even stopping and rereading a page or paragraph if it doesn't sink in — to really capture what the author is trying to say. Experts warn that without reading and really understanding what's being said, it is impossible to be an educated citizen of the world, a knowledgeable voter or even an imaginative thinker.
The concern that deep reading is going by the wayside is a phenomenon that author Nicholas Carr says in his book, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains," may have something to do with our use of technology and our habits while browsing the Web.
Just last summer, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said he was concerned about what he sees as a decline in slow reading. Instant messages and 140-character tweets appear to be taking over our ability to concentrate on a single idea or theme in a book, he told Foreign Policy Magazine.
It's easy to forget the benefits of deep reading in an age where anything worth doing is done fast, Canadian author John Miedema says. We surf the Internet, gather snippets of information and click hyperlinks that bring us to different topics and authors, he says. In less than a second, we can go from reading about Beethoven the composer to watching a clip about Beethoven the St. Bernard online.
"The Web is essentially a distraction machine," Miedema says. "Hyperlinks are meant to take you away from where you are."
In his book "Slow Reading," Miedema argues that deep reading is like the slow food movement — it takes time, care and effort to read quietly and concentrate.
"I can appreciate people's desire to read faster," Miedema says. "But if you want to have a deep relationship with a text and understand a complex idea, then slow reading is a preferred style. It's good for pleasure, too. It's not a rushed experience and you can lose yourself in a text."
Mirit Barzillai, a child-development doctoral candidate at Tufts University of Boston, focuses on literacy and says researchers are just starting to study how people process what they read on websites.
"There are so many different and new places to read these days — online, with electronic readers, on the phone — that there isn't a lot of research looking at the processes of reading and how technology affects it," Barzillai says.
Barzillai is interested in the way children read and if they will learn how to read deeply as they grow up in the digital age.
"Reading isn't something we're born with," she says. "Your brain has to form that reading circuit. And that circuit is shaped by what you're reading. When (adults) came to the Internet, we came with those skills and experiences that were already developed. If children learn to read primarily online and through digital media, I wonder if we are encouraging or growing a different kind of reading process."
Nora Mueller, 17, notices that when she has to do a paper for school and researches it on the Internet, she rarely reads a whole page. She primarily clicks links and scans.
"I read so little about what's actually there. I don't feel like I absorb everything," Mueller says. "I'll read the beginning of a paragraph and then I'll skip the rest."
She can remember what she reads when she's engaged in a book, she says, but retains little from the Internet.
Ohlone College English professor Cynthia Lee Katona wrote "Book Savvy" specifically to help people who have stopped reading get back into it.
Katona was late in picking up her first book — she didn't start reading novels until she was 14 — but she's a voracious reader today. She says reading is a highly social activity that builds the mind and social connections. If you read, she says, you simply know more and have more to talk about with friends, partners and acquaintances.
Deep reading also can take readers on trips around the world even if they are sitting in a living room armchair, Katona says. Also, it helps readers understand themselves and others and develop thinking, writing and conversational skills.
"If you like beautiful things, authors put words together that are really beautiful and expressive," she says. "If you want to write well — and there are lots of reasons to be articulate and to express yourself clearly — you should read."