Getting in “Deep” with Reading

photo by bizior on stock.xchng 

by Robert P. Waxler 

What is it about reading that makes it significant? Does it really matter what we read and how we read? And what do we mean by “reading” anyway?

It is not quite true to say that we are what we read, but reading is always a social process, even when we read alone. It is an activity allowing us to find ourselves through a common language, a set of symbols set before us by other human beings. When we read, we bring ourselves, our language, our voice to the black marks and white spaces on the page, wrestle meaning from them, and recontextualize ourselves in relation to them.

This is why reading is not mere entertainment, at least not the kind of “deep reading” we have in mind. And this is why we celebrate literature – stories, novels, poems, plays – in Changing Lives Through Literature programs. As the ancient poets insisted, literature can delight us and teach us; literature is not mere entertainment because it demands through its language both the exercise of our body and our mind.


Reading is strenuous when done well. It is an experience taking us out of conventional time and fettered space, bringing us to a new place, free from the ruins of an uninspired and flat existence. As we read, we find our own plots and stories unfolding through the language and voice of others. Literature, more than other forms of writing, has this power.

bookWe read stories, and we create them as we read, making a home for ourselves as we join the conversation. As Mark Turner puts it in The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language: “Knowing how to inhabit stories is the essential requirement of mature life.” Through reading, we break free from our single lives, as Turner suggests, from the linear and local perspective of ordinary existence. We emerge from single vision into the complexity of a multifaceted human experience.

Deep reading is not an easy and secure activity. It can be dangerous, always ongoing, never finished – like thinking, like the beat of the human heart. As the plot unfolds, characters come alive, draw us in, read us as we read them.

Santiago, the old man in Ernest Hemingway’s story of fishing in the deep water off of Cuba; Atticus Finch, the idealistic lawyer in Harper Lee’s tale of justice in the deep depression of segregated Alabama; Wolf Larsen, the Darwinian captain in Jack London’s sea story of survival in the deep abyss of ocean consciousness: who are they now? Magical presences, all of them, whispering to each reader about endurance and courage, telling each of us something about our frailty and heroism as mortal human beings.

We imagine what we read. This too is important, marking a significant difference between reading a text and watching visual images dance across a screen. The richly textured language of good literature, filled with ambiguity, always opens itself to the reader, calls to us, encourages interpretation, and demands that we participate in the making of its ongoing meaning. Deep reading evokes our voice, insists on the work of our entire body and mind. By contrast, the visual images of a screen culture flatten us out, as Sven Birkerts has well argued, imprison us in the sensation of the speeding moment, leave no room for us to find our voice or discover a home. As one CLTL student put it: “Reading books has at least released me from the endless boredom of watching television.”

The process of “deep reading,” as I am trying to describe it here, is a particularly human act with a complex language system at its core. As humans, we are the symbol-making animal, and it is precisely that ability that defines our unique human identity and allows us to confer meaning on our experience. It is what makes literature the most important tool we have today to keep our human identity and purpose.





Robert P. Waxler is Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and the co-founder of Changing Lives Through Literature.


28 thoughts on “Getting in “Deep” with Reading

  1. Allan–I would say, at least in part, it has to do with the sense of surprise–and language that is original, language that continues to surpirse each time the reader comes to it.

  2. “literature is not mere entertainment because it demands through its language both the exercise of our body and our mind.”

    I think this quote is essential to the definition of deep reading. Deep reading is a lot different than entertainment, such as watching TV, or even reading a “popular novel such as James Patterson or the like. I think people use both reading and television as ways to entertain themselves and distract them from some of the stresses of their daily lives. However, television and other forms of entertainment often cause a mindless distraction, whereas deep reading does not. Reading (“deep reading”) causes a distraction by forcing the reader to think about many important aspects of life, and the world in general, that are not part of their daily life. Certainly, not mindless. I would consider these “good” distractions. Distractions that make the reader think, sympathize, empathize, care, etc. about issues and problems that would never cross their paths in their typical day.

    Therefore, deep reading not only allows the reader to realize that the stresses of his/her daily life are not as important as they appear to be, but, I think, hopefully, make that reader a better person all around.

  3. Yes, Jeremy I would agree. I am reminded of some of the students in the CLTL class who told me they always used to watch television, but after a few CLTL class sessions, they realized they were just numbing themselves out watching the tube. By contrast, for them, reading was exciting and energetic, and made them think.

  4. Whatever inspires; whatever provokes you to reconsider how you view life and the world in which you live; to come to the realization that there is more to know, more to explore, and in the case of candidates for CLTL, to recognize where you are responsible and where you are a victim. It could be a book, a poem, a song, a movie, a cartoon, an encounter with your best friend or a total stranger. For participants in CLTL, books are particularly important because of the adverse experience so many of them had with school, where implicitly they were taught to shun learning and critical independent thinking.

  5. “Deep” reading in my experience has always involved an element of reflection. If I don’t find myself thinking about the characters and the situations in a work of literature, it has not engaged me in a meaningful way. However, being part of a reading group can bring new meaning to a book that I might not otherwise have been gripped by alone. I think it’s important with literature to have others to share thoughts and insights with. Sometimes, just knowing that there will be people on the other end to converse with, makes my experience of reading something deeper as I go along. Talking about reading deepens the experience for me whether it’s about critically acclaimed literature, daily news, or even lighter magazine articles.

  6. Deep reading, to me, involves elaborate meaning-making. I know some elementary teachers who use a technique to help students read more deeply and facilitate meaning-making. They ask students to comment or make connections in at least three ways, 1) on relations between characters and events in the the actual text, 2) on connections between the text and self, and then 3) to connect this text to other texts they have read. (Note: There are many different iterations of this technique). Although mature readers do not necessarily go through those steps in any particular order, they do make many of these links in their own deep reading. I believe deep reading represents meaning-making on many different levels. And, through this meaning-making, both cognition and affect are activated. In Proust and the Squid, reading researcher Maryanne Wolf (2007) points out that “young children learn to experience new feelings through exposure to reading, which, in turn, prepares them to understand more complex emotions.” (p. 85) Certainly, this is a part of deep reading.

  7. Read, read, read.
    Then, write, write, write.
    They go hand in hand,
    Mind in mind.

    Ad astra, the Romans said.
    Read and write
    Till you reach the stars,
    Till you become a star.
    We’re all leftover stardust anyhow.

    Blessings on your reading program, Bob Waxler!

  8. Yes, as many of you are suggesting, reading, at its best, seems to evoke self-reflection. I think that human language shaped into “story” is an extraordinary phenomenon. Language can make the unfamiliar familiar, and the familiar strange–it invites us into some other place, an uncanny territory that allows us to glance a “clearing” ( as Heidegger might put it). I continue to believe that “deep reading” is one of the best ways to preserve the human heart. And language (unlike images on a screen) can help get us there.

  9. pmarean: Reading groups offer a special collaborative experience unlike any traditional classroom situation.

    Robert Michael: lovely poem.

    Jeremy: I disagree about the James Patterson novels. I don’t think it matters what you’re reading, as long as you’re reading. Though I’m certainly open for a debate on this topic. I get ticked off at colleagues who say how much they “detest” The Da Vinci Code as “pop fiction” (I’m not accusing you of this; just time for a tanmgent.) What difference does it make if people are reading for purely pleasure? This can still be deep reading. In fact, I bet if you ask Da Vinci Code readers about their experience, they’ll describe getting “lost” in the book feeling time “slip away” and hours passing like minutes. To me, that is deep reading: Leaving this corporeal realm into the infinite imagination.

  10. By the way all, the hyperlink on my name is incorrect.

    My blog is actually:

    I’m trying to get this switched. I’ve recently posted an article about foundational, Canadian children’s author, Robert Munsch. I’m quite happy with it hope you enjoy.

  11. In the parlance of my favorite game, “Home run,” Bob! Reading such as you write about it creates new meanings, within ourselves and for us as we relate to the world. But “deep reading” also invites a paradox. As you say, “Reading is strenuous when done well.” There’s the rub. Do people want to read “strenuously” to invent themselves and open themselves to new possibiilities? Or would they rather go to a mall, look at the zillions of goods for sale, and invent some identity by buying or just dreaming about owning any of that stuff? Or just watch some action-thriller movie that jazzes them up, making them feel like the hero who’s just slain The Beast? In our sociiety, we have this weird paradox. We revere literacy (and apotheosize certain kinds of art) and also give ourselves the right, and even applaud that right at times, to reject it outright.

  12. I think reading is like many things. You get out of it what you put into it. In today’s culture it seems every one wants what they want and the want it now. There must be at least 30 restaurants within a few miles of my house. Many are fast food and or takeout joints. People hire others for many services they used to do but have no time for. I have watched the audio book section of my local library double each year. It seems many are listening to, rather than reading, stories. I think this fast paced life style, many of us have adopted, leaves little time to relax and dive into a good book. “Deep reading” takes time, not only to read, but to consider what’s going on with the plot and characters. It seems many don’t have, or are unwilling to, make the time to slow down and enjoy a good book. This may be one reason for the lack of reading Carl wrote about in the previous blog. To me slowing down to take the time needed to dig into, and pick at, a good story, may not be therapy but it is therapeutic. I agree with Bob that a good book is more than entertainment. I am worried that less and less people seem to engage in “deep reading”. I think I’ve turned into my father when I say it seems as though we’re going to hell in a hand basket. I can’t believe I wrote that. I have become my father. OMG. You see, people don’t even take the time to write to words out. LOL. For those of you who are over 30 and have no children around, OMG and LOL, mean Oh My God and Laugh Out Loud respectively. To close with a more optimistic note, I am encouraged that people are talking and blogging about this and related topics, as that leaves the door open. As long as people are asking the right questions the answers will follow. To quote a famous Brit, “I may be a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”. I also like a quote from someone a little closer to home. As my friend Bob says, “keep the vision”.

  13. Very thoughtful and insightful article and comments. I would just like to offer a view from the land of the ordinary. Individuals with exceptional apptitude should aspire to the lofty goals of ‘deep reading’. Everyone should be encouraged to achieve to their highest potential, but one must be careful not to decry those whose potential does not allow them to attain the ability to have their lives so impacted by good literature as Bob W.’s words suggest. From my perspective, the majority of our society cannot function at the level that is described as ‘deep reading’.

  14. Along with literature’s instruction and delight reading offers another benefit: redemption. The reader can find redemption through reading and rereading plays and poems and stories. Deep reading is a dangerous endeavor, as Bob Waxler points out; it demands reflection. Sherman Alexie’s story, “What You Pawn I will Redeem” reflects on the author’s own experiences as his character Jackson Jackson suffers and seeks and discovers redemption through kindness, his own and others’, and persistence. As Jackson Jackson redeems his grandmother’s lost dance regalia, he redeems himself. Sherman Alexie shows the way through pain and suffering to wholeness and joy.

  15. Wonderful comments here. Carl: I know you agree: “deep” reading is strenuous, and that of course makes it worthwhile. And David, yes to redemption. Alexie is a man worthy of our attention, no doubt. And Wayne: what about the songs and music?–that too helps to bring us home, yes? And Joel: maybe “deep” reading is a matter of exercise. The more you do it, the better you get at it. That seems to hold true for many of the CLTL participants, for example. And as Maureen tells it: elementary school students benefit from that kind of exercise too. And Bob Michael: Keep writing those poems. And Allan:I’d say that Jeremy is right about writers such as Patterson:Commercial realism, as the critic James Woods suggests, can’t take us very “deep.” That kind of writing sells, but the language lacks genuine surprise and wonder. It works for the first reading, but after that, it’s usually emptied its meaning.

  16. Deep reading is strenuous when done well. It can be heart wrenching and change your life forever. I know the Breedloves will go to my grave with me, as will Connie, Sorrow, Lucelia, and Mattie. These are all characters brought into my life through deep reading.
    A personal hero of mine is, Elie Wiesel. I teach Night to my senior English class every year. I am always completely emotionally drained at the end of the book. No matter how many times I read his memoir, it affects me more, not less.
    It is because of this emotional attachment to stories and people that it takes a strong person to connect with literature. I respectfully disagree with Joel R. about the majority of our society not being able to perform deep reading. I think anyone can do this if they are given the right book. I have 12th grade students readfing at a 4th-6th grade level and they are capable of deep reading. Just about all of the women I worked with in the women’s prison were great deep readers. We had wonderful conversations about literature. Many of these women have less than a high school education, but possess the life experience that enables them to connect with different personalities and situations. I think deep reading has more to do with willingness, strength, and maturity than reading levels.

  17. Hi Kelly,
    I agree with you as well. Anyone can read deeply. Maybe Joel means “deep reading” in the sense of the literary theorist reading against the grain, deconstructing, and analyzing. The concept of reading deeply is hard to describe, but we ALL know what it means . . . to us.
    Great points all around, I think the main point is finding books that people can enjoy and engage with. Reading deeply will come naturall because we’re naturally inclined to storytelling. It’s in our nature.

  18. I am new to this forum, and pleased to have stumbled across such an interesting conversation. I agree with Kelly that the majority of our society has the potential to perform deep reading. That said, deep reading requires maintaining deep attention. In this era in which we are bombarded with so much stimulation, educators need to remind/reteach many students to focus.
    Katherine Hayles wrote a very smart essay on this topic in the Modern Language Association’s journal *Profession* in 2007 ( In “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes”, Hales defines ‘hyper’ attention as rapidly switching focus among different tasks and information streams and describes ‘deep’ attention as ignoring outside stimuli to concentrate on a single object, such as a novel. I have written a brief response to the article on my own blog (, however I think it would be quite worthwhile for those of you interested in this topic to read Hayles’ essay in its entirety as it offers a fascinating perspective on the pros (and cons) of fostering both kinds of attention in students of all ages.

  19. Kelly and Allan: Yes, willingness and strenght, I like that–and yes, there is something “deep” within us that responds to “Story”–it’s “natural” to our human identity. But perhaps it has taken a long time in the evolutionary process for us to get to the moment of “deep” reading. Some critics now seem to be concerned that with the so-called screen culture, we are losing that particular ability.

  20. And Beth: Yes, hyper attention and deep attention. Most of the undergraduates I know, for example, seem very good at multi-tasking, but perhaps not so good at “deep” attention on a single, long-term task. I would argue that they need to slow down and focus, but they might say that I need to speed up and get around more!

  21. Bob, I think both are true. Students and professors need a more interactive learning model that fits both their needs–ie, fostering deep reading while adapting to a Gen Y learning style.

  22. Blogging is new to me – even though I am 86 years old, I am willing to try. Thanks, Bob, for the thoughtful text on deep reading and I loved the picture! I am just now trying to keep notes on my own reactions as I read alone and compare them to those of the participants in our program People and Stories/Gente y Cuentos (see website

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  25. So would you classify “shallow reading” what you do when you utilize search engines and read information on the internet?

  26. Pingback: Does reading really make us better people? Some questions on ethics and literature « Changing Lives, Changing Minds: A Changing Lives Through Literature Blog

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