Reading Deep and Wide

On a recent trip to Italy, we ate homemade pasta, pizza, and gelato daily. We tried all kinds of food and were always thinking about what our next meal would be. But we noticed something while we were in different restaurants: we would eat and leave while others who were there before us were taking their time slowly eating dinner. The Italians say it’s “the American way” – we rush through our meals to get to the next thing while the next thing for the Italians is the meal. They eat bruschetta, sip wine, eat some cheese and crackers, sip wine, eat pasta, sip wine, eat some chicken or beef, sip wine, and finally eat tiramisu and have coffee. We were told a typical Italian dinner lasts 2-3 hours as opposed to our one hour dinner. Now, we wanted to have the Italian food experience, but we also had things to do and see. Time was of the essence. Did we enjoy our food any less before we ate more quickly?

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Reading can be like eating where readers typically fall into two categories: those who read deep and those who read wide. Deep readers take their time with texts savoring and enjoying the words, phrases, and passages of a few texts while wide readers move through works quickly enjoying a variety of books. I tend to read deep and wide depending on the book or the occasion. If I’m at the beach or pool, I will most likely not pick apart passages with a highlighter in hand (notice I say most likely because I have been known to have highlighters at the pool). I also read before bed to relax and unwind and do not want to think hard then. I do however, set aside time to read deep jotting notes and thinking through passages because this type of reading is often what changes me.

Both types are reading are necessary and beneficial. Here are some thoughts and ideas for each:

Reading Deep

Howard Jacobson in The Problem is the Reader from The Guardian claims, “Until people fall out of love with the screen, I don’t know what will win them back to writing.” I can testify first hand that screen time in adults and teens has made deep reading more difficult. I have noticed this in my own life over the past couple of years. Sustained concentration is harder due to notifications continuously popping up and our conditioned behavior of checking phones makes deep reading harder, but we must fight for deep reading.

If you want to read more deeply, try one or more of these suggestions:

How to Read a Book published on Farnam Street’s site is an excellent primer for understanding the different levels of deep reading and the questions to ask at each level. I highly recommend this article for those wanting to be serious readers.

Read and reread small sections. Choose one paragraph or even one chapter to concentrate one and read no more. This takes discipline for wide readers but is worth the effort. I recently read the introduction to Girls Burn Brighter multiple times because it was so dense and rich. I would have missed so much if I had only read this once.

Choose a quiet area with no distractions. Deep reading is far more difficult in a public place or with the Braves on in the background. Find a quiet place and a time where you are not rushed; deep work cannot be rushed. (Side note: this also applies to writing as the hubs just turned on the radio in the next room, and I’m struggling to concentrate).

Take notes. The process of writing something down, even if you never refer back to your notes, helps to internalize thoughts. I would also encourage interaction with the text as opposed to simply underlining or highlighting a passage. Write why you chose to underline that particular section. Jot questions you may have in the margins. Think of deep reading as the reader having a conversation with the text rather than the text just telling the reader something.  

Have a reread shelf. Rereading books is something that gets the shaft in today’s society but holds so much value. Choose a few books that you will reread every few years over your lifetime. My reread shelf includes Don’t Waste Your Life, To Kill a Mockingbird, My Utmost for His Highest, and Pride and Prejudice among others. Choose what books speak to you then reread them on a rotating basis.

Reading Wide

Articles circulate from time to time such as Reading Habits of the Most Successful Leaders that highlight people like Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates who are voracious readers devouring hundreds of pages daily. Sometimes these readers receive criticism for not going deep, but reading wide can expose people to a wide variety of thoughts and ideas.

If you want to read more widely, try one or more of these suggestions:

Set reading goals. Goals tend to move people forward and help focus and motivate the reader. I keep track of my reading on GoodReads which is helpful for me. Set a goal that is a bit of a stretch but something realistic. I set yearly goals, and while I may not always reach them, I definitely read more than if I would not have set goals. I also set daily goals. When reading professional books, I set a goal of reading one chapter each day; this goal pushes me to finish as opposed to floundering around. I love how Jon Belt set goals by dividing books by pages for his Man Book Club. I also publish what I read quarterly to hold me accountable to my goals; accountability is a great tool!



My book club at the Carter Center to hear Rick Bragg speak

Make reading a community venture. Join a book club whether it be in real life (shout out to my book club) or an online book club like #THEBOOKCHAT on Twitter. Both of these groups give me an outlet to discuss books and expose me to a wide variety of texts. I also ask friends to read with me from time to time especially when I’m reading professional books. Both Adrian Nester and Brian Sztabnik have read different books with me this way; we each read a chapter daily then leave our thoughts about the chapter on Voxer. This helps me stick to a reading schedule, and the shared experience of reading makes the book more enjoyable (even if I don’t enjoy the book).

Give yourself permission to give up on books. Certainly you should stretch yourself in reading and push yourself to persevere through difficult texts, but sometimes breaking up with a book is just necessary. I advise people to give books a page for however old they are before deciding to break up. If a student is 14, she needs to read 14 pages before giving up on a book. I can cut a book lose at 52. This seems to be a good rule of thumb. As much as I wanted to read One Hundred Year of Solitude because everyone raves about it, I let it go earlier this summer and moved on to something else. Don’t feel guilty; there are plenty of books to be read.

Read across genres. One of the beautiful aspects of reading wide is the exposure to different ideas and stories. This is what helps people grow in their thinking an ideas and gives insight into different perspectives. You do NOT have to agree with everything you read. I think we are living in a time where people are becoming more polarized because they only read things they know they will like or agree with, and failing to consider another point of view – whether you agree or not – can be dangerous. I read a variety of nonfiction, contemporary fiction, young adult, poetry, and classics on a regular basis but will also include an occasional graphic novel, science fiction, or a drama in order to stretch me. I devour lists of the most commonly read books and the best books of the __________ (fill in the season here) as well as ask people what they are reading.


I read both deep and wide and give my students opportunities to do both as well. I read deep because I need to slow down and think. I like not understanding a passage and rereading and thinking on it long enough to make meaning from it; this builds my confidence as a reader and helps me grow as a thinker. I also like to read wide because I enjoy getting lost in a plot or tied up with a character and not overanalyzing the journey they take me on. Wide reading is also like carbo loading for me as a writer; I am ingesting words and phrases so I have enough to convert into my own written works.

What suggestions would you add to reading deep and reading wide and/or what should I read next?


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