Reading deeply or reading muchly?

by uneasyrhetoric

(cross-posted from Uneasy Rhetoric, and by Mr. Uneasy himself)

Is it better to read deeply or broadly? The Kindle Chronicles podcast a few weeks ago included an interview with Chris Brogan, co-author of The Impact Equation, about his decision to read only three books over the course of a year. Brogan chose his books using the classic triumvirate of head, heart, and hands: one business/leadership type book, one spiritual book, and one fitness book.

Brogan argues on the podcast that we don’t read deeply.

“I have this opinion that a lot of times people will read books and just kind of go from one book to the next,” Brogan told me. “I track on things like Twitter what people say about my book. So I’ll see, ‘Just finished The Impact Equation, now going on to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg’—as if there’s some kind of a hurdle race, as if they’ve just gone over a hurdle, and they’re going to the next one.”

As a result, Brogan believes, we seldom go deeply enough into a book, to fully absorb the meaning of it. His idea of picking three books to read and reread throughout the coming year tests a new level of commitment to a book, like becoming a rooted disciple instead of a hurdler who is always jumping to the next new title.

I admire the idea behind wanting to read more deeply, and it is something I constantly struggle with myself. I have read countless books in my lifetime, novels, epic poems, philosophy, self-help, business, drama, and more. Unfortunately, except for a handful of books I have read multiple times, and only a few fingers of those, I have forgotten most of what I read. As an English major in college, I was expected to read works several times in preparation for in-class discussion and frequent written analysis. Easy in poetry class, but in a class where I was reading a novel every week to two weeks, much harder. Today I can tell you that I enjoyed Middlemarch and consider it one of my favorite novels. However, despite having read it four times in under two years, I can’t remember more than a handful of characters’ names and a barely-there notion of the plot.

Were I to decide to read deeply in the way Brogan describes, I think I would constantly worry about what I wasn’t reading. More accurately, it seems to go against my desire to read broadly. I have five screens of unread or partially-read titles on my Kindle, and the list includes everything from fantasy to public policy to pop-psychology to fiction en français. I like being able to flit from topic to topic and I’m proud of the fact that I have such broad interests. Nevertheless, even with so much already on my plate, I still worry about what I’m not reading. It is an addiction, really, and what has always been a problem for me–buying books I want to read but will never get around to reading–is made much worse because of the Kindle and by the ability to read extended samples of a work.

Thus, I am intrigued by Brogan’s idea, but I think the approach may be wrong, or slightly dishonest. On the one hand, he will be able to read very deeply. None of the books he chose are very long or very complicated, which, if he really doesn’t try to read other texts will mean many multiple readings. However, I suspect that, like me, Brogan is a frequent reader of short texts–articles, magazines, blogs–and is not likely to give those up, nor would I expect him to. I think, though, that he will find himself reading even more of these to fill his time, especially when he gets very, very bored of the three books he chose.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to try to read more deeply. Every reader has a book or two the reader returns to from time to time. For me it was the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Catcher in the Rye. Note the was. I don’t return to books any more. I’m still playing with rereading my favorite Updike novels, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. In that case, I feel guilty that I still haven’t read all of his essays. I’ve read a number of self-help books recently but haven’t bothered to return to those either. Self-help books almost require a periodic return to be effective. I’d like to read more philosophy, but good luck understanding any of it on a single reading.

Instead of choosing three books and limiting myself to reading only those over a given period of time, I think I will make a conscious effort to have, always, at least one book going to which I have committed a deeper read. This doesn’t mean I will choose a book before the fact and read it multiple times. Instead, as I get into a book, I will need to step back and decide whether I need to read it again to gain additional insight.

After all, some books are not worth reading. Others are nice to read once through in the same way that I’m glad I’ve seen some movies but don’t need to see them again. A small number require re-reading. Still, at the very least, I should probably review the highlights I make while reading books on my Kindle.

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