There are very few things we do for their own sake. Our motives are often utilitarian: routines and hobbies must somehow make us smarter, wealthier, or healthier. We listen to Mozart because it sharpens our brains, do yoga because it relieves stress, and take vitamins to keep sickness at bay.
But what of reading? Reading is a pastime classically understood to be good for its own sake, worth pursuing for what it is and not just what it might give us. But in a world of utilitarian habits and quantitative measures, reading is usually called upon to offer us more than itself: we speed and skim through our texts in order to receive the goods they provide with as little inconvenience or commitment as possible.
As cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf writes in her book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain In a Digital World, “more and more I read in [books] rather than being whisked away by them. At some time impossible to pinpoint, I had begun to read more to be informed than to be immersed, much less to be transported.”
Our digital reading tools encourage these habits: e-readers incite our progress through a text by showing us how many pages we have completed, and how many we have left. This mechanism makes it extremely difficult to lose oneself in a text, and often turns reading into a race. The e-reader suggests that we are reading not to savor books, but to conquer them. Reading morphs from relationship into conquest.
As Wolf recently wrote for The Guardian,
Ziming Liu from San Jose State University has conducted a series of studies which indicate that the “new norm” in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text. Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, 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.
… The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. 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.
Wolf is right that our lack of deep reading has consequences: for intelligence, empathy, analysis, and concentration (among other things). But ironically and importantly, the goods that result from reading—such as deeper understanding or greater cognitive focus, for instance—only come when we fully commit ourselves to the text for its own sake, and not for its side effects.
When I was young, reading was my life. I devoured books, immersing myself in works that sculpted my brain, interests, and character. Jane Austen, Gene Stratton Porter, Sir Walter Scott, and C.S. Lewis (among others) ignited my imagination and cultivated my conscience. I hid books in every room of the house so that I could sneak paragraphs and pages when I was supposed to be doing homework or chores. Perhaps these books served me in some way; but as far as I was concerned, reading was pure joy and abandon. There was nothing utilitarian about it.
Alas, much has changed. College taught me to read for a grade, rather than for the delights of reading itself. Despite the beauty, wisdom, and importance of the books assigned in my classes, I could not sip and savor them. I had to conquer them before class (or at least before exams). I had to pull from them the bits and pieces that would serve me best, in the forms of professorial approval or GPA-bolstering grades. During these years, reading began to lose its luster.
Deep reading falls into the category of “leisure,” classically understood: far from our culture’s consumptive and passive forms of recreation (such as binge-watching Netflix), “leisure” stems from the Greek word σχολή, from which we get our word “school.” As Roger Kimball wrote in a 1999 New Criterion essay titled “Josef Pieper: Leisure and Its Discontents,” the ancients’ conception of leisure was “not idleness, but activity undertaken for its own sake: philosophy, aesthetic delectation, and religious worship are models.”
In his book on the subject, Josef Pieper writes that leisure is inextricably tied to an attitude of humility: an acknowledgement of the givenness inherent in our existence and the world around us. “Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality,” he says. Pieper does not mean silence here in the sense of “‘dumbness’ or ‘noiselessness,’” but rather “that the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed.… It is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.”
Far from the narcissistic tendencies of modern utilitarianism (“how does this help or improve or serve me?”), leisure necessitates a humble posture: it recognizes our own needs and cravings as secondary to the subject of our admiration—in this case, the written word. “Steeping” is a good word to describe the act of reading. It suggests a focus and calm which enables the mind to give itself wholly to the unfurling of a text. This process cannot be rushed: it requires commitment and humility, a mental stillness that is deeply challenging amidst the chaos and clutter of the modern world.
Is it possible for us to read deeply in our distracting and frenzied environment? Of course—if we’re willing to commit the time and effort. This summer, I’ve been trying to rediscover the joy of deep reading. Vacation gave me the opportunity to turn off technological devices and pick up “fun” books. I’ve started reading aloud to my husband in the car, and have found that the act of reading aloud automatically slows my brain, forcing me to move with the cadence of the text. In addition, I discovered that reading outside helps remove some of the temptations to distraction and speed—I’ve found the front porch is a great spot to read in the evenings or on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
I will never be able to read like I did when I was a kid. Adult responsibilities have sapped much of the abandon and zeal I applied to reading in those days. But that doesn’t mean I can’t gain back some of that joy and concentration—and I’m thankful for every opportunity to focus in once more.
Did reading this summer make me smarter, stronger, or better? I don’t know. Probably not. But it was good, all the same.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.