Reading For Meaning

I recently finished reading Nicholas Carr’s excellent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and while it provided me with much to think about in terms of technology and brain development, an unexpected bonus was that it also gave me much to think about in regards to reading. Carr spends a good amount of time looking at the historic evolution of technology, including the period of time before and after the printing press. He examines how the act of reading, and specifically “deep reading,” changed the shape of human brains and society. He goes on to examine how we’re losing our ability to deeply engage with the written, printed word in favor of attempting to absorb an endless stream of snippets via the Internet.

About a month ago I had read (in its entirety, even when I got scared of the graphs) this Slate article: How People Read Online: Why You Won’t Finish This Article and I’m still thinking about it today. Even as I type, I’m thinking about how you may not finish this post. I’m speculating as to how your eyes may track across your screen. Have I taken away enough potential distractions with a spartan blog design? Don’t blame yourself if you can’t reach the end. I don’t blame myself and I’m ultimately the one tasked with keeping you engaged. After digesting Carr’s findings, I understand that it may all be a little bit out of your hands by now, if you’ve spent enough time mixing with digital media and rewiring your brain to swallow snippets rather than paragraphs. I’ve already given you two links, suggesting to your brain that it opt out of what I’m about to share about reading. But if you, like me, really care about reading, you may wish to read on.

I learned to read before I was four. I don’t remember how it happened, but I do remember not being able to read and then being able to read. One of the first times my mom realized that I could read was when we had taken our cat to the vet and I was sounding out the words displayed high on the wall: cat, dog, fish, bird. This moment was somehow so important in my early life that I can picture the vet’s office in my mind and that was one of only two times in my life that I was there. When I ask my parents about my learning to read, they don’t talk about this instance, but they remember other times when I took them off guard by reading signs aloud. Once I started to read, I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. It was such a heady feeling — like I suddenly, independently had access to all sorts of material that hadn’t made sense this way before. I tried to read everything. I remember a few years later, at six or seven, I pulled Gone With the Wind from a shelf and leafed through. “I think I can read this,” I told my dad, “I know almost all of these words.” I read a few sentences aloud. “There is more to reading than knowing the words,” my dad explained, “Part of reading is being able to understand and think about what you read.” I nodded sagely and filed this information away because it seemed important, even if I didn’t understand it then.

I understand it now. In fact, now more than ever, having learned a thing or two over the years about the development of literacy and how our brains work (not to mention a thing or two about Gone With the Wind). Something to keep in mind, as we actively teach children to read at younger and younger ages, is that the act of reading doesn’t mean much. It’s the complementary tasks of reflecting, recalling, making connections, and finding meaning that really matter. It’s those things that make the human brain so unique and wonderful. It’s those doors that we need to keep open for children, because inside there is where all the magic happens. (We also need to trust that sometimes that magic needs to happen independently.) (Oops, there’s another link. I just lost a few more of you.)

A few quotes from Nicholas Carr on reading deeply:

“In the quiet spaces opened by the prolonged, undisturbed reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”

“What was so remarkable about book reading was that the deep concentration was combined with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning.”

“The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden.”

I don’t always read deeply, and, like Nicholas Carr, I have a legitimate concern that I will read less and less deeply the more I engage in Internet reading, browsing, and mindless immersion. I have done the research and I know that my attention span and focus are being compromised by technology. I also know that we don’t need to read deeply each time we read in order to reap the intellectual benefits. We just need to unplug. We can dip our toes in the frothy and frivolous and we’re still building better brains than if we were pointing and clicking through Scientific America. What we need is the quiet and the opportunity to reflect.

A few tips for reading deeply:

  • Read something that challenges you. Not something that bores you.
  • Read something unexpected: poetry, if you don’t normally delve into poetry; try fiction if you’re a non-fiction kind of reader and vice versa.
  • Take notes.
  • Pause. Reflect. Resume.
  • Talk about what you’ve read! Not only with others who have read it, although that can be wonderful.
  • Make time and space for reading. It doesn’t have to be hours of time and it doesn’t have to be silent space, but it does have to be relatively uninterrupted by email and it does have to be relatively consistent (aim for daily).

I’m dismayed at regular intervals by reports of fewer people engaging in book reading than ever before. But I’m not sure this is true. I’m personally meeting more people who are readers, who are proud to be readers, and who introduce me to new books and new ideas all the time. This is encouraging, not only for me personally as a reader, but for society in general. Children need to see us reading (books! magazines! newspapers! cereal boxes!) and they need to think about us reading and them reading and what it means to be a reader. Children don’t become literate simply by learning to read. The literate know how to think about what they read and what they want to read and what they hope others will read.

“Literacy arouses hopes, not only in society as a whole but also in the individual who is striving for fulfillment, happiness and personal benefit by learning how to read and write. Literacy means far more than learning how to read and write. The aim is to transmit knowledge and promote social participation.” From UNESCO Institute for Education

What about you? Are you reading deeply or are you sticking to the shallows? (Hint: if you made it this far down a page, there’s hope for you.)

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One thought on “Reading For Meaning

  1. Ariadna says:

    Thank you for having high hopes for me (all of us who did it 🙂 I am a deeper reader, to be truthful more deeply in English than Romanian. The reason for that it might be my willingness and need to understand and learn more from this new (for me) language. When I start using the nook it was harder that I thought it will be :). But now I am at the 5 one and I am getting much better

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