The Proximate Source of Modernity

Could the dividing line between America’s two tribes be how deeply they read?

Deep reading is the subject of a recent article in National Affairs by foreign policy scholar Adam Garfinkle. His thesis: more people than ever can read, but due largely to the dominance of attention-span-eroding television and the internet, fewer can deep read, defined (my paraphrase) as taking the time necessary to understand a complicated text, then weighing the writer’s arguments and either changing one’s ideas, refuting the writer’s ideas, or arriving at a synthesis through sound, non-defensive reasoning.

According to Garfinkle, “Deep literacy has wondrous effects, nurturing our capacity for abstract thought, enabling us to pose and answer difficult questions, empowering our creativity and imagination, and refining our capacity for empathy.” He deems it very likely the “proximate source of modernity.” By contrast, “people who cannot deep read — or who do not use and hence lose the deep-reading skills they learned — typically suffer from an attenuated capability to comprehend and use abstract reasoning.”

It’s an appealing idea, but I’m not ready to fully embrace it. I wish Garfinkle had included some empirical data to support his contentions. Alas, he doesn’t, although some may be embedded in works he cites (a couple of which I’ll link to below).

Nonetheless, on an intuitive level what he says rings true. One reason I feel the humanities provide great preparation for the business world is that struggling with Shakespeare and other challenging texts gave me the cognitive patience and breadth to understand contract language crafted by $800-an-hour lawyers — and the intricate dynamics of a large, diverse workplace. I consistently outperformed colleagues who put speed or rote response over comprehension because I was trained in deep reading.

Deep readers may lead different lives and hold different views from one another, but they all draw from a trove of written wisdom crossing generations and cultures, and their dialogue with humanity’s profoundest ideas drives our collective progress (such as it is), whereas Garfinkle describes those who cannot or will not deep read as “locked in perpetual intellectual adolescence.” You don’t need a Jordan Klepper video for proof that what Garfinkle calls illiberal nationalist populism (and I call authoritarianism) is “what happens in a mass-electoral democracy when a decisive percentage of mobilized voters drops below a deep-literacy standard.” But if you do need proof, go just thirty seconds into the Klepper clip and behold the Constitutional defender who hasn’t read the Constitution. That too accords with my personal experience: of the many authoritarian family members, friends, and co-workers I’ve known, I can think of none I’d call a deep reader.

I couldn’t help but evaluate Garfinkle’s article from a writer’s perspective as well. His thesis aligns with my view that the job of serious writers is to communicate their most insightful observations as clearly as they can. The more banal the point, the less felicitous the prose, the worse the writer. To put it another way, serious writers should be capable of creating deep reads. At the very least, they should try.

Public Library, Hokitika, New Zealand (population 3,000).

Books cited by Adam Garfinkle:

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010)

Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (2018)

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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