My Return to Deep Reading

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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:


13 thoughts on “My Return to Deep Reading

  1. This sounds like the type of book that would interest me. I’ll keep an eye out for it on the Waterstones website 🙂

    I, too, know the sting is frontal lobe distractions. Often have I found myself sitting on the couch by the PC engaging in a book when I suddenly find myself wanting to check my emails/Facebook account some more.

    The only way I can remedy this is by turning the computer off entirely. But then I won’t have an excuse for why my mind keeps wandering when I’m trying to read…

    • Andrew, the book has a lot of interesting history as well as the cultural critique.

      It’s helpful to know simply that other people have the same struggles. I used to think it was just a matter of getting older, but now I’m not so sure that’s all of it.

  2. I found that the distractions or the internet were interfering with my deep reading years ago. I wasn’t getting that same relaxed feeling that I once did when I was reading. So, I then changed things up. Now, I read before I go to bed and my internet is off–done for the day. Even if I don’t have time to read for an hour or two; I will still read a few pages, just to get into that state of relaxation before hitting the hay. It is the time that I look forward to in my day.

    • What a good daily habit! I like the idea of turning the computer off completely awhile before going to bed.

      I’d never really thought of reading as relaxation, but you are spot on.

  3. I’ve had this book on my wish-list for about a year now; your posts about the book have revived my desire to read it.
    I completely recognise my loss of ‘deep reading’ too. I have noticed my need to have more than one thing going on at the same time, right now I’m watching the TV while making revision notes- something my parents are completely unable to comprehend and caused many discussions/arguments when I was in high school. I seek to get completely lost in literature again but it would help my degree too. If I were able to completely listen in lectures, instead of doodling, read textbooks and journals without my mind wandering, and write notes and revise without the music or the TV in the background. I am sure it would help my electricity bill too! Does Carr give any help as to how to learn to ‘deep read’ and concentrate fully again?

    • Katie, I completely understand what you are saying. I wonder if some people (I’m one of them) naturally tend toward multi-tasking, so that the new distractions inherent in modern life make it even harder to balance that tendency with single-focused attention.

      Carr doesn’t give many suggestions for how to address the distractions, but I hope to share some ideas from others later this week.

  4. It seems that it depends on book and/or author whether I can do that:
    Right now, I’ve got to read Foster’s “A Passage to India”, whhose “Howard’s End” I already liked a lot, and, simultaneously, “Midnight’s Children” – which I have come to love and read wherever I go.

    The last book I read from cover to cover in less than 24 hours was “Nicht weit vom Stamm”, by Oliver Uschmann, my favourite author at the moment. (German – surprise … 😉 )
    But BOY, I had quite a reading-hangover the day after that … 😉

  5. My siblings and I grew up on reading probably because of the example of our mother who was so rapt with her books that she could sit in the middle of a hailstorm of kids (often chewing on her cheek) and not even notice.

    I love the stories in movies, but at the end of the day, I am similar to littejl, I open my current book with enthusiasm and after several pages of enjoyment, more often than not, it literally puts me to sleep! Deep reading feeds me and I notice I also do less because of the attraction of the internet.

    The Shallows is available at my library, so tomorrow I pick it up.

    Thanks to Pam Parker’s blog post I found yours.

    cheers, catherine

    • Catherine, what a wonderful memory of your mother! I fall asleep far too easily late in the evening now, too.

      Please let me know what you think of The Shallows if you read it.

      Pam is amazing!

      ~ Lisa

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