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The Shallows, Part I: Deep Reading

Yesterday I took advantage of having a cold and staying home (our car didn’t leave the driveway all day!) to finish reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. The book was released last year and recently gained headlines as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for general non-fiction.

cover of The ShallowsI’m not qualified to comment on the research upon which Carr’s argument is based (for an interesting critique, read Jonah Lehrer’s New York Times review), but I do want to spend this week discussing several parts of the book that gave me pause and that might affect the way I work and the daily choices I make, especially as a writer.

One of the book’s themes is that the distractions inherent in web-based reading (hyperlinks, multiple tabs, email notifications) train us to avoid the more single-focused, understimulating experience of deep reading: the kind of reading in which we immerse ourselves in a single text for an extended period of time. Like Carr, “I can feel it.” Whether the result of the internet or other aspects of my life, I realized about three years ago that I had stopped reading in the way I once did. Oh, I still read, quite a bit, in fact. Reading is part of my job. But even when I read books, I did so distractedly, in snatches, and rarely did the experience bring me the joy and fulfillment I’d remembered from my youth.

My return to deep reading began the summer before our son went to college, when I decided to re-read all of the Harry Potter books in sequence so as to be able to discuss them with him on our daily walks. It took awhile before I could lose myself in the pages. My mind was abuzz at first. I read too quickly—a tendency I’ve always had—and I could almost feel my brain reaching out beyond the book, wanting to check email or move to another task, but, in time, I found the rhythm of deep reading I’d once had. The results have been far greater than simply adding books to my “have read” list, as Carr explains:

“It is the very fact that book reading ‘ understimulates the senses’ that makes the activity so intellectually rewarding. By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking. The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one.” The Shallows, p. 123

Does everyone seek or even need this kind of experience? I’m not sure. I know plenty of brilliant, successful, happy people who rarely read books cover to cover. All I am certain of is that deep reading and the calmness and deep thinking it brings are important for me, not only for my ability to write well, but for my peace of mind. I’m lucky that I’m married to a deep reader and gave birth to a deep reader, so it’s easy to carve out hours of our day when the only sounds in the house are the hum of the refrigerator, the wind against the windows, and the quiet turning of pages.

What The Shallows made me realize is that deep reading is a hard-won habit that I can’t take for granted and that I plan not to lose again.

Other posts in The Shallows book review series: