Summer has drawn to a close, and even though it is still hot and humid in Florida, the time for summer reads is drawing to a close.
Fall seems to be the time when people pick up books that are a little more…well…literary. Perhaps you had a handful of “beach reads” that you made it through this year. Reading for recreation and escape is one of the time-honored summer traditions.
Enjoyment is Only One Benefit of Reading
“Recreation or escape” is certainly one valid reason to turn to books. There is nothing wrong with reading just to read.
I try to balance my very-planned reading list with some “lighter” fare, on a regular basis. Every year, I lay out a plan to read through a large number of books I “should” read or books I’ve decided are important for me to read for any number of reasons. Typically, I compile a list (which is always growing and always changing) of books that I think will aid me in my literary maturation, deepen my understanding of key concepts or areas of learning, or help me in my personal and business growth.
But I also pick some books that I read just for fun. I turn off the editor side of my brain and I don’t try to make the books more important than they are.
As Martha Stewart might say, “It’s a good thing.”
Deep Reading is Important, Too
In the last blog post, I commented on why I think it is important for writers to be voracious (or at least consistent) readers.
But, there are more than just literary craft and process benefits to deep reading.
Before we look at the benefits, let’s define what “deep reading” is, for the purposes of this blog post.
Deep reading is a slow, methodical immersion in a text with the specific purpose of looking beyond just the surface details and obvious story.
It is a deliberately different exercise than what we do when we breeze through a summer read for the purpose of entertainment. Deep reading is meant to increase not only our comprehension of the text itself, but also applying the knowledge, engagement, and empathy we have acquired to our everyday lives.
Deep reading uses deduction, reasoning, and analytical skills. It provides opportunity for reflection and insight. It’s main benefit is not escape, rather the benefits of deep reading begin with a focus on discovery and insight. Deep reading allows the reader to be open to transformation.
How to Read Deeply
The first key to gaining the benefits of deep reading is to read slowly and with purpose. Reading in a more methodical way will allow you to see more clearly the deeper meaning of the words. You will find layers of information and story revealed that a more casual reader might miss. You will absorb more details, and therefore, you will be more likely to make subtle connections.
Part of deep reading is re-reading. When we are writing (and especially when we are critiquing or providing feedback about writing) we attempt to LIMIT the need for a reader to “go back and re-read that passage.” This is a valid goal of editing and revision, because when a casual reader has to go back and re-read a section, it is usually because the text is not clear or because the main point of the text was somehow hidden.
In deep reading, re-reading is undertaken not because the text is unclear, but because we feel we will benefit from re-examining the words.
Perhaps we are looking for deeper clues, or maybe we just like the language of a passage. (This reminds me of an eye-opening encounter I had with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, when I went back and began to take passages of narrative description and re-write them as poems. I didn’t have to re-read the section because it was unclear; I re-read it to improve my understanding of language and words.)
Finally, deep reading is reading with a notebook or highlighter or pen in hand. (I use all three.) Deep reading involves taking notes, asking questions (some of which you will answer yourself, some of which may not be answerable), marking highlights, writing summary statements, making guesses, and physically reacting to the text. Deep reading can involve triumphant moments of agreement or maddening instances of disagreement. Deep reading is active.
Benefits of Deep Reading
The first, and most obvious benefit of deep reading is that you get more out of the text. You understand more, you see more, you feel more. (Of course, not all texts respond well to deep reading. I remember going back to a beloved book of my childhood, determined to re-experience the book from a deep reading perspective, only to find that upon closer examination, the book wasn’t that good. It had been an important part of my literary childhood, but it did not stand up to close inspection.)
Second, one of the most important benefits of deep reading is mental health and wellness. Research has shown that when we read, our brains react as if they are actually experiencing the events, emotions, and places depicted in the text. If the characters are frightened, the parts of our brain that activate when we are frightened are triggered. In some ways, we experience what we are reading about. This is an important way to keep our brains active and healthy. It also helps us understand the world, and the people in the world, in ways that promote understanding and empathy, two key factors in reducing stress and anxiety.
Third, deep reading helps us practice more advanced cognitive skills like analysis, problem solving, synthesis of new ideas, and creativity. Like a muscle that hasn’t been used, we run the risk of letting our higher-order mental function atrophy if we don’t do some mental pushups or knee bends. Deep reading is one way of promoting these more advanced ways of thinking.
Fourth, as Time magazine recently said, “Deep reading makes us smarter and nicer.” The article warns of the perils of losing the experience of deep reading: “[Deep reading’s] disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.”
Finally, close reading changes the actual structure of our brains…in a good way. Not reading can have a negative impact, actually closing nueral pathways and re-routing things in the brain. Deep reading can have many beneficial effects. The research is showing that this is not limited to “mental health” in the psychological sense, but also to the actual, physical structures and health of the brain itself.
And, of course, as a writer, I know that there are many artistic benefits of deep reading. I am a better writer today because I have studied many other writers. But I would suggest that there are creative benefits to deep reading for artists of all kinds. Creativity is sparked through deep reading.
I know that I have benefited as a writer from a deeper study of a painting or a sculpture or a symphony; It is my hypothesis that an artist or musician would also see benefits in their own artistic expression from engaging in deep reading.
(Yes, I teach deep reading classes, which are designed to help both writers and non-writers get the maximum benefit from some great books. Here’s an upcoming class you might be interested in.)