The beanbag chair crunched as I settled down inside it. Next to me, three girls lounged across each other, limbs swinging with the youthful ignorance of personal space.Woodson Candy purple striped walls shot up from the National Book Festival stage above us.

Beneath a picture of fluttering books, Jacqueline Woodson was speaking about when she was about the age of the three girls. She loved reading and learning. But when she was a child, her teachers thought she wasn’t very smart. Why? Because she read slowly.

Turns out, slow is smart. Woodson, a multi-award-winning poet and writer, attributes much of her success in work and life to her slow reading habit. Her words surprise me, mostly because I’ve never thought much about how I read. I read. I love books. Why does it matter if I read them slow or fast?

The two towers of books next to my bed, which seem to grow faster than Jack’s beanstalk, loomed in my mind.

I’m a writer. I’m a reader. How do I read slowly and still read all the books??!!

bedside book towerLater that week, with Woodson’s words simmering in my head, an article popped up on my news feed. It was called Skim Reading is the New Normal. The Effect on Society is Profound.

I clicked. And I read. I didn’t skim. I cringed.

The more I read, the more worry crept into my mind…

According to the article, “college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19thand 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. ”

So, what? Kids don’t want to read Chaucer? Who can blame them! Unfortunately, this is a symptom. The real problem: avoiding “deep reading” sacrifices critical brain functions. 

Deep reading, also called slow reading, is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one’s comprehension and enjoyment of a text. Skim reading is the opposite. It’s superficial.

“When the reading brain skims… we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.”

-Maryanne Wolf

Why does it matter if students, and others, skim read? What’s at stake? Oh, nothing really, just those pesky little abilities of comprehension, critically analysis and empathy.

The brain is a muscle. It needs to be flexed. Essentially, you’re never going to solve complex, real-world problems if you’ve been lifting two-pound metaphorical dumbbells.  (Choice of dumbbell metaphor intentional!)

And adults are not immune. As the article explains, the muscles of critical analysis we built of through a lifetime of reading can weaken when we become junkies of the quick burst of information. One of the most essential characteristics of being human is our ability to think critically. Without it, what are we?

“The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

-Maryanne Wolf

After finishing the article, a personal crisis bloomed inside me. Yes, I love to read. But I am a skimmer! I’ve ceded book time to 280 character chunks on Twitter. I scroll through my news feed glimpsing headlines instead of picking up a book. When I do read, it’s not unusual for me to scan across the page.

A fundamental question loomed in me: Am I reading wrong? Am I trading critical thinking for the expediency of mass consumption?

As I settled down to ponder this, I looked over that tower next to my bed. The spines read The Wicked + The Divine, Geekerella, Between the World and Me and The Art of War. It’s an odd variety that gives insight into my reading habits.

Sometimes I want to think. Sometimes I want to be entertained.

Perhaps it’s not about reading wrong. Perhaps it’s about reading balanced. Sometimes it’s let the brain skim on social media or certain books. But deeper reading should dangle on the other side of the scale.

The question I should be asking myself: is my scale balanced?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I think it’s probably not. Despite a healthy reading habit, I spend far too much time in the clutches of social media. But I do know there are certain types of books that draw me into deeper, slow reading. There are books I don’t want to skim, where I want to get lost in every line and think about every word.

I need to make sure more of those are on my nightstand.


Want to increase your deep reading? Here are 4 main categories of books that make me want to read more deeply, with some examples.

1. Poetry

2. The Classics

3. Modern Books With Complex Prose Language

4. Books with Complex Metaphors

What do you think of deep reading in the digital age? Are you worried for the future of humankind?

Advertisements