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.
Sigh. You know, having been an enthusiastic reader since childhood, I’m almost ideally suited to be favorably disposed toward this message. Wouldn’t my ego just love to believe that my ability to concentrate intently on printed material made me wiser, deeper, more authentic? Luckily, I retain enough objective perspective to realize what a load of happy horseshit that would be. It’s just one skill set out of many, and by no means the most important. (Ironically, it’s hard to escape the impression that, for all the talk of empathy, advocates for the progressive benefits of literature seem to find it difficult to sympathetically imagine that a life lacking in sustained, focused concentration and reading for pleasure could still be fulfilling.)
Don’t get me wrong — I’m perfectly content with reading being my main hobby, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. But it’s not like reaching a certain level of knowledge or experience or empathetic wisdom elevates you above the storm and stress of everyday life, allowing you to always feel serene or in control. Complexity is not a uniformly “positive” thing. Your problems and obstacles likewise increase in complexity as well.
And if being able to vicariously experience such vivid emotions and moral complexity makes us “better” people, wouldn’t it follow, then, that the creators who envisioned such situations to begin with would be better as well? If reading great literature is such a net positive, shouldn’t the writing of it indicate an exquisitely developed moral perspective? To just go ahead and put too fine a point upon it, are we to understand that great writers are rarely, if ever, shitty excuses for everyday human beings?