What is deep reading?

Reading is one of the most magical activities designed by the human mind. The written word provides a time travel machine in which ideas that exist in an author’s brain can jump across space and time to invigorate the brain of the reader. Reading also allows us to accelerate our learning by leveraging the expertise of the author. A good author might spend hundreds or even thousands of hours over multiple years researching, synthesizing, drafting, editing, publishing, and revising her work. That literature might be built on a whole collection of other writings that represent tens of thousands of hours from other authors. As readers, we reap the benefits of this labor without having to pay the upfront cost. When we read, we leverage work that was created on a time scale measured in years for a cost that can be measured in hours. With this in mind, one of the most powerful practices you can use to develop your learning skills is the habit of reading. This habit is particularly important in learning how to build a career that you love. In this blog post, we explore six different types of reading. This work sets a foundation for others posts on the subjects of learning, personal growth, and professional development.

Types of Reading

The English verb “to read” is vague. The sentence “I am reading” communicates the general idea that you are sitting in a space with your eyes focused on written words. But this sentence does not capture what is happening inside your brain.

The imprecise nature of the verb “to read” reminds me of the similarly ambiguous quality of the verb “to exercise.” When you say “I will exercise today,” I understand very little about what you actually plan to do. It is much more definitive if you were to say “At 4pm today, I will run 3.0 miles at a pace of around 7 minutes per mile as part of my training routine for my upcoming half marathon.” This second sentence is much more precise because you specify the type of exercise you will perform and you contextualize this activity within a larger set of goals for your physical health.

I find the analogy between reading and exercise instructive because this comparison highlights some deficiencies in the English language. When speaking about exercise in English, you have a ton of clarifying verbs that you can use to classify the type of physical activity you are doing. For example, each of the following verbs constitute a type of exercise: walk, run, sprint, jump, lift, throw, catch, play, swim, stretch, climb, etc. When you use these more specific verbs, the listener gets a concrete picture of what your body is doing and what the activity looks like.

In contrast, when speaking about reading, the English language lacks more precise phrases to describe different types of reading that you might engage in. Let’s highlight this point by considering a fun question from a fictional standardized test:

“Exercise is to running as reading is to what.”

This question highlights the idea that we don’t often talk about subcategories of reading. As far as the English language is concerned, all reading is described using the same verb “to read.” That verb is insufficient to describe the different types of reading you might do and the distinct goals you may have while you read.

Just like particular forms of exercise are appropriate for specific contexts, the type of reading you do likely depends on your desired use for the information that you plan to decipher. From that perspective, I define and categorize at least six different types of reading that I do on a daily basis. I hope you find these categories useful as you build and refine your own reading systems to accelerate your learning.

TYPE 1: TRANSACTIONAL READING

Transactional reading is short, focused reading to accomplish a specific goal and complete a transaction.

For example, if I am at the DMV and I want to apply for a new license, I have to complete paperwork. Littered all over those forms are a ton of words that I have to read in order to get that work done. The same is true when I get a jury summons with a ton of information I need to know in order to report for duty. Other types of reading in this category include travel directions to a new destination or filling out paperwork at any place I do business on a daily basis, like a library, bank, or post office. The same can be said about research I do to buy a new item or any receipts I collect as I make purchases.

All of this reading is surface-level and does not permeate deep into my soul. When I read transitionally, I use written words to make decisions about how I should act to accomplish specific tasks with concrete deadlines.

TYPE 2: ENTERTAINMENT READING

Entertainment reading is reading for pleasure, joy, or leisure.

This type of reading is similar to watching a movie, chatting with a friend, or engaging in recreation. The point of this reading is to enjoy oneself. When I read for entertainment, I’m have no particular goal in mind other than to have fun with whatever story I’m reading.

TYPE 3: INFORMATION-COLLECTION READING

Information-collection reading is reading I do to stay informed about current events for topics in which I am already interested or reading I do to expose myself to ideas that may spawn new interests over time.

This type of reading usually involves newspaper or magazine articles, radio segments, podcasts, or YouTube videos (at the end of this post, I explain why I consider listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos to be forms of reading). To finish information-collection reading for a single piece of work may take anywhere from a few minutes and no more than two hours. These reading experiences are not deep dives into specialized subjects but instead updates that I can dissect quickly. The point of this information-collection reading is to stay informed about the world around me.

I don’t always come away from information-collection reading with concrete action items or specific ideas I want to try. But, I keep the information I collect in the back of my mind as I navigate life and use this information to guide future decisions. I usually do not have a concrete goal or specific timeline in mind for the information that I collect during this type of reading.

TYPE 4: EXPLORATORY READING

Exploratory reading is reading I do to dive deeper into specialize topics. This type of reading usually involves audiobooks, digital kindle books, and peer-reviewed journal articles. To finish exploring a single piece of work may take me anywhere from two to ten hours, depending on what I am reading.

When I do exploratory reading, I have some specific goals in mind. In addition to broadening my own awareness about the world around me and probing ideas in a specialized realm of knowledge, I also want to make a decision on whether or not I feel this work deserves a larger time commitment in my future.

As discussed below, the most intense and meaningful type of reading I do is deep reading. Over the course of a year, I am lucky if I can deep read four books. Because I am limited by the 168-hour rule (there are only 24 x 7 = 168 hours each week), I find that the older I get, the more judicious I need to be about deciding what I commit to read deeply.

Exploratory reading is designed to vet potential candidates for deep reading. When planning my exploratory reading, I focus on topics that I have a well-developed interest in pursuing. By the time I am doing exploratory reading on a subject, I have already been interested in that topic for many months or years.

TYPE 5: FILTER READING

Filter reading is reading I do to filter every word in a particular work into one of two categories. The first category, which I call substance, are ideas that I believe will lead to desired learning. The second category, which I call fluff, are passages that I do not find very interesting or contain ideas that I have already mastered.

I usually engage in filter reading after exploratory reading but before I begin my deep reading processes. When I filter read, my goal is to decide on which excerpts may lead to lasting changes in my life. To filter read, I re-read every word of the book for a second time and ask myself a series of questions including:

  • What comes up as I read this passage?
  • How do I imagine I can use this passage to transform my current understanding of the word, improve my performance at home or work, or change the way I view the world in significant ways?
  • How do I feel as I read this this passage : excited, uncomfortable, curious, happy, sad, etc.?
  • What ideas do I find novel or interesting here and why do I feel this way?

Not all parts of a particular work I am reading strike me as substantive. Published authors are good at selling book. To do so, they often add a lot of narrative and support work to make their work palatable to the largest possible audience. However, when I engage in deep reading, I usually have some specific outcomes that I want to achieve. Moreover, depending on my recent diet of exploratory and deep reading, I often have expertise that makes many parts of particular work redundant for my purposes. The goal of filter reading is to isolate the parts of a book that I find most relevant for my own future growth.

As a rule of thumb, I expect that any work that I filter read has at least 10% – 40% of it’s content that catches my attention for a deeper dive. Because I use exploratory reading as a precursor to filter reading, I usually already have a good idea of the ideas I care most about as I sift through the work. I use filter reading to pinpoint the exact passages that I want to focus my prolonged attention on as I progress in my deep reading processes.

Note: In the early stages of developing expertise on a subject, I may feel compelled to process 100% of a book. In this case, I skip filter reading and dive directly into deep reading. When I was a younger man, this was how I learned mathematics. For a selection of mathematics textbooks geared for upper-division and graduate-level work, I would re-write every word in the book in my own language and solve every single practice problem offered in the back of each section. My goal was to create detailed notes on the subject. When applicable, I would also combine ideas from multiple sources as I decipher the author’s work., I did that work under the assumption that I had relatively little expertise in the given subject. As my expertise level grew, I didn’t need such a deep dive in future readings. Instead I could be much more discerning when reading books on the same topic. This is what filter reading is designed for: to help me determine which parts of a book are most interesting to me as I deepen my learning.

TYPE 6: DEEP READING

Deep reading is reading that I do on a subject that leads to lasting changes in my thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and actions. If I do my deep reading correctly, these changes endure for years into my future.

I do deep reading at my home office in a special ritual space. When I read deeply, I minimize all distractions and set aside focused, uninterrupted work time. I usually deep read nonfiction books, peer-reviewed journal articles, or textbooks. To finish deep reading a single work might take me a minimum of 10 to 30 hours. Depending on my commitment level, I am willing to deep read some books for hundreds of hours over many years of my life. When I read a piece of work deeply, I spend many, many hours analyzing that work and deconstructing the authors ideas in ways that make sense to me. By the end of a deep read, I usually have my own customized notes on the work. While the author’s original work provides a foundation, I embellish my notes with many ideas not provided by the author.

One of the ways I judge my own deep reading habits is to ask myself a series of questions:

  • How is my life different now compared to when I first started deep reading this book?
  • What changes have I made to the way I think, to how I act, and to my belief systems because of my work on this book?
  • What evidence have I created to demonstrate how I’ve used this book to enhance my life?
  • How can I systematize the knowledge I am constructing from this deep reading so that I can leverage this work for years into my future?
  • If I were to think about creating a portfolio of work to document my learning journey with this book, what would that look like? How could I use that process to become more effective in the areas of my life that I care most about?

During my deep reading processes, I strive to produce meaningful answers to each of these questions and to build a body of work that documents my transformations. Because this is a fun and intense process, I limit the number of books I deep read each year. My upper bound for deep reading in a given year is at most four nonfiction books.

Expand Your Definition of the Verb “to Read”

I have a feeling that after you read the definition of information-collection reading that I offered above, you might have thought: “Wait! Listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos is not reading.” I sympathize with that perspective. However, I challenge you to reconsider your definition of the verb “to read.” You might start by looking at Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word “read”. The first few entries are:

  • to receive or take in the sense of (letters, symbols, etc.) especially by sight or touch
  • to utter aloud the printed or written words of
  • to learn from what one has seen or found in writing or printing

Each of these definitions makes reference to processing information in printed form. However, that same definition of the word “read” also offers the following entries:

  • to recognize or interpret
  • to attribute a meaning to
  • to receive and understand (a voice message) by radio
  • to acquire information from storage

That last line “to acquire information from storage” is by far my favorite definition of the word “to read.” I find that particularly relevant for 21st century life. I believe that one of the reasons that the common use of the word “read” is so closely tied to written symbols is because prior to the 20th century, the written word was the most effective form of storing information that could transcend space and time.

Starting in the early 1900’s to present day, we’ve had an explosion of information storage and transmission technology that has fundamentally shifted the way human beings acquire information. This includes radio, television, movies, internet, podcasts, YouTube videos, and so many other mediums.

Because the English language has been slow to catch up, I like to re-purpose the word “to read” to describe my desire to acquire new information. From that context, I believe that podcasts and YouTube videos are perfectly valid forms of reading.

It is worth saying that my intention for the activity matters. I recently watched the movie Marshall starring Chadwick Boseman. He passed away a few months ago and I remember really enjoying that movie when it first came out. I would not categorize this activity as reading. My intention for that viewing experience focused on entertainment reading: I wanted to enjoy the story, feel inspired, and remind myself of Boseman’s talent.

On the other hand, I also recently re-watched the Netflix documentary 13th (directed by Ana DuVernay). That viewing was my third and I would definitely categorize that experience as information-collection reading. While I watched, my intention was to collect specific information about the structure of racism within the democratic system in the United States and to gather ideas about future reading that I plan to do.

The distinction between these two viewing experiences lies in my intention. When watching Marshall, I intended to enjoy and did not pay special attention to any features of the movie. I just watched. When viewing 13th, I set my focus on learning more about the American Legislative Exchange Counsel. I also tried to find connections between this documentary and some recent books I have read on the same subject. I took notes on the content, re-watched special segments multiple times, and did follow-up research on some of what I learned.

Community Challenge

  1. Develop your own understanding of what reading means to you and think about how you can design reading systems to make learning meaningful, achievable, and purposeful. What types of reading do you do? What books have you read that have fundamentally influenced the way you see the world, how you engage in your work, and how you live your life? Why? What lead to those changes? When do you find that the reading you do has the biggest impact on how you live your life?

  2. Create a public reading list to track the reading that you do. Share your reading list with people you trust. Make your reading part of your social life so that others in your communities know about your reading habit.

  3. Build reading into your work habits. Many of our jobs demand our labor without investing energy in getting to know us individually as learners. In other words, many jobs want us to produce work without creating space for self-exploration and self-directed learning. To counter act this institution-centered approach to labor, begin to create your own demands for the type of learning you want to do in your work. For example, in any given week, I expect to do at least 4 hours of exploratory reading and at least 4 hours of deep reading. At this point in my career, I focus heavily on developing my identity as a White antiracist and also on re-designing my approach to grading. In the past, I spent many years focused on improving my productivity systems and on developing expertise in the science of learning. I like to imagine that I can design my own PhD degree with a number of titles on a given subject of interest. Then, I spend many years earning a PhD in that subject with the explicit intention of more effectively empowering my communities with the knowledge I build. In all this work, I focus on topics that I believe will make me more effective at my job and will help me re-invigorate the sense of purpose I create in my work. I am willing to sacrifice other tasks to make sure I set aside time to do this type of development. In fact, I demand that any place I work at allow my the type of autonomy that I need to engage in this type of life-long learning. If you could develop your own demands for your work, what would those be? What are you interested in learning more about in your job? Why is this important to you? If you were to design your own degree, what topic would you study? Why? How many hours of reading would you like to do each week dedicated to this type of learning?

14 thoughts on “What is deep reading?

  1. I remember when I read a draft of these published words that were on your educator-N-student-centered page: http://www.appliedlinearalgebra.com/blog/jeffs-reading-list I shared your 1st paragraph, on the beauty of reading… to about a dozen friends on campus within a week. Whether they saw the same transformative perspective you are trying to shine a light on, that I did, is primarily up to
    1) how well I shared and “sold” them the story / perspective – quite similar to delivering a STEM lesson lol
    2) how hungry they are for this information
    3) all the cognitive/psych. weights & scar tissue built up from their life a decade ago to that present & future-days…
    when I was trying to articulate to them how I redefined reading after reading your post! Time to share with a dozen more close friends in a 1 on 1 setting. lololol

    I hope you will invest in creative ways to ‘sell’ these pieces you’ve deliberately worked to publish, to your students… all while you prepare them for takeoff – aka upper division classes when they transfer / their first internship or job / any big event which requires reading and learning lol.

    Writing is so wonderful. Over the past month, some of my ex-colleagues and friends overseas came across our (raw) youtube clips https://youtu.be/NdY8mSQ1Ewo and many of them said that the videos are cool, but it’s hard for them to understand what we’re saying in our videos… this is a strong vote to writing better for us all! people with less interest in multimedia or barriers in language globally can translate our written words so much easier than understanding our talking heads at times lol…
    onward!

    Like

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