When a minaret dating from the twelfth century was toppled in the fighting between rebels and government forces in Aleppo, Syria, earlier this spring, we recognized that more than a building had been lost. The destruction of irreplaceable artifacts—like the massive Buddha statues dynamited in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan in 2001 and the ancient texts burned and looted in Iraq in 2003—leaves us less equipped to understand ourselves and where we came from, less able to enlarge ourselves with the awe and pleasure that these creations once evoked.
Which is why we should care about the survival of a human treasure threatened right here at home: the deep reader. “Deep reading”—as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the web—is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.
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.
None of this is likely to happen when we’re scrolling through TMZ.com. Although we call the activity by the same name, the deep reading of books and the information-driven reading we do on the web are very different, both in the experience they produce and in the capacities they develop. A growing body of evidence suggests that online reading may be less engaging and less satisfying, even for the “digital natives” for whom it is so familiar. Last month, for example, Britain’s National Literacy Trust released the results of a study of 34,910 young people aged eight to sixteen. Researchers reported that 39% of children and teens read daily using electronic devices, but only 28% read printed materials every day. Those who read only onscreen were three times less likely to say they enjoy reading very much, and a third less likely to have a favorite book. The study also found that young people who read daily only onscreen were nearly two times less likely to be above-average readers than those who read daily in print or both in print and onscreen.