The Case for Deep Reading

I’m sitting next to an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the Oakland hills, somewhat laboriously composing this post on my Droid Eris. My biggest challenge: my hands are gigantic, and I LOATHE the touch screen. It’s the one thing I miss about my beloved Blackberry. I think I’ve had to hit the back button to correct mistakes 34 times. Creating that link above was a bit of a pain.

I’m attempting to prove that I can crank out some reasonable words (and correct punctuation) using this wondrous device, with its 2×3 inch screen and its powerful processor. I think I am error free so far…

We live in a world of status updates and micro-blogging; the knowledge we take in every day is brain power to the; everything is shortened, abbreviated and condensed.  We see an ESPN tweet- “Favre returns to Vikings” and the link. If you follow American football, that’s cut and dry news, easy to digest. But what about more important news and knowledge? Are we going to participate in a collective dehumanization of our online word, reducing thoughts and concepts to 140 character essays?

Sven Birkerts is a critic of this superficial info-glut we find ourselves in. He wrote a book in the 90’s called The Gutenberg Elegies, in which he claims our capability to learn and understand things is being deteriorated because of our “electronic culture.” What I think he means: we’re getting dumber. Birkets coined the phrase Deep Reading, which he characterizes as “the slow and meditative possession of a book.”

 Slow or Deep Reading is said to help us soak up the words we are taking in, more firmly super-gluing them to our brains. Birkerts believes that this helps stimulate our noggins, helps us retain information longer, and might even help us enjoy what we’re consuming even more.

(I have to admit, composing this phone-based blog a lot harder than I thought it would be. I’ve been at this awhile! Time for a break.)

(4 minutes later)


The evangelists for Slow Reading claim that when you master doing something very fast, you become used to it. I’m on Twitter (@johnscottsf) and every other social media network I can think of, and the interconnectedness of one tweet to 12 sites is naturally alluring and very simple. Slow readers, in contrast, can decelerate their brains, their heart rate and their life, it is said.

We who post and tweet and update would argue that the payoff is the link that follows our knowledge nugget. Fine, we say; you want to take it slow, go to the site – the information is there to be digested. Maybe not. If we click the link and start reading, it’s easy to skim, be distracted by the #@^%! pop-ups, the video ads launching without our permission, and those other well-known annoyances. There are websites that light up like a Vegas slot machine (radio station sites come to mind – awful)! We really don’t have time to soak it in.

Skimming the latest Kardashian quibble is one thing; what about public affairs and politics? The arch-enemies (and lefty-left supporters) of President Obama don’t actually read much.

Stellar example: HE’S A MUSLIM!  Tweet, tweet and retweet. THEY’RE RACISTS! Tweet, et al… Problem not solved, democracy in danger.

Words have power; how you use them can mean the difference between perceived sweetness and anger. My friend, a busy mom,  asked to get together later this week. I replied in my text, “Pencil me in; see what happens.” She initially was miffed, thinking I was being dismissive. What I meant was,” I know you’re busy, and you might have to cancel – please know I’m cool with that.” After my explanation via voice mail, all was forgiven. It was easier to text something quick; I ended up spending twice as much time on the redo.

Imagine what the right combination of words can do for your customer/audience/constituent? A company needs a skilled wordsmith as its voice, so that messaging in our brave new world can be interpreted quickly and correctly. That’s what I want to do for a living, if you’ll have me.

In Jaron Lanier’s recent book You Are Not a Gadget, he makes the case for the re-humanizing of the Internet. One of his suggestions is “Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.” Give it some context, he posits; give it some beauty and fluidity and grace. Make it a micro-vid masterpiece. Maybe I should coin the phrase Slow Watching.

I think having kids read deep is good for their melons. They don’t have to pick up a book; it’s easy to slow read on a Nook, Kindle, iPad, etc. Sometimes we all need to slow it down and absorb things, to make the words sticky and to improve our general collective intelligence.

It took forever to write this on my Droid, but I made it – hopefully with few errors. Never again!  Slow Reading is good; slow writing…not so much.


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