A society that develops deep readers

Sociologist Wendy Griswold has written about what it means to develop a reading culture and recent research about “deep reading” suggests people have to learn to have to do it:

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy…

To understand why we should be concerned about how young people read, and not just whether they’re reading at all, it helps to know something about the way the ability to read evolved. “Human beings were never born to read,” notes Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Unlike the ability to understand and produce spoken language, which under normal circumstances will unfold according to a program dictated by our genes, the ability to read must be painstakingly acquired by each individual. The “reading circuits” we construct are recruited from structures in the brain that evolved for other purposes—and these circuits can be feeble or they can be robust, depending on how often and how vigorously we use them…

This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls “carnal reading” and “spiritual reading.” If we allow our offspring to believe that carnal reading is all there is—if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice—we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter.

If we put this in sociological terms, it sounds like the research suggests that deep reading is a socialized experience. Deep reading is a developed skill, perhaps explicitly modeled and taught and also observed and absorbed. For those who see the benefits of deep reading, the next logical question seems to be how to continue this socialization process. When Griswold studied reading culture in Nigeria, she discussed the role of printing presses and publishing companies, educated authors, citizens have the money to buy books, and citizens having the time to read novels and longer works. There are not the same kinds of issues in the United States: there are plenty books, authors, and potential readers with the time and money for deep reading. Instead, the issues are things like a lot of competition for reading and a value system that privileges progress, novelty, anti-intellectualism, and pragmatism.

What happens then if a society is post deep reading, having advanced past that stage according to the practices of many residents? Does this affect civic and social life in meaningful ways? Or, if a society is divided along reading and non-reading lines? There has been plenty of discussion about inequality regarding the Internet but what about with books and reading?

0 thoughts on “A society that develops deep readers

  1. Pingback: Using algorithms to analyze the literary canon | Legally Sociable

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