Are you a shallow or a deep reader?

This article was written by Andrew Blackman.

When it comes to reading, are you shallow or deep?

Don’t worry, I’m not making a value judgment here about the type of books you like to read. This is one situation where deep is not necessarily better than shallow. It’s just a different way of reading.

I, for example, am a shallow reader. What I mean by that is that I never seem to read on any particular topic in depth. I read one book on, say, the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, think it’s fascinating, plan to read more, but never get around to it. I read one book by John Banville, fall in love with his prose, plan to read everything he’s ever written, but never get around to it.

If you can relate to any of this, don’t worry: I like to think that the reason is not laziness. What it comes down to is that life is short. Sure, I’d love to read ten more books about the Mau Mau rebellion, but in the same amount of time I could read books on ten new topics that I might find equally interesting. John Banville is a great writer, yes, but I’ve also heard such great things about Adam Thirlwell, and then there’s that guy who just won the Nobel Prize, and I read a great review of Jamaica Kincaid’s new novel, and what about those five books I bought on a whim at a garage sale? There might be a gem in there.

A ‘deep’ reader would resist the allure of all those new books and authors. She would devote herself to John Banville or the Mau Mau until she’d read everything there was to read. She wouldn’t think about all the ones that got away.

I have to admit, I envy deep readers. I’d love to be able to consider myself an expert on some topic, no matter how small. I’d love to speak with true authority, rather than always being conscious of my ignorance. I’d love to stick to something, instead of always flitting to the next exciting topic or hot author. And there’s something inherently satisfying about complete sets, whether of stamps or books. The collector in me craves more than my current randomness.

But on the other hand, I’m not prepared to give up the essential optimism that underlies my shallowness: the conviction that, as good as this book or this writer was, the next one might be even better. And as a writer, I like to be exposed to a range of styles and topics, to discover new things, to stimulate my imagination.

So this year, I’m planning to acknowledge my shallowness, but take a few small steps in the direction of depth. I’m planning to read in my usual haphazard, scattered fashion, but commit to reading the complete works of at least one author by December (perhaps John Banville would be a good place to start). If I achieve it, then at least I can consider myself a completist in one author… at least until he writes a new book.

Are you a shallow reader or a deep reader? Which authors or topics or genres have you read in real depth? Would you like to change your reading habits, or are you happy the way you are?

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Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), winner of the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary. His next novel, A Virtual Love, is out in April.

Editor’s note: I ordered A Virtual Love from The Book Depository. Even to the US, they shipped it free.

Photo: Some rights reserved by traveling.lunas.

13 Replies to “Are you a shallow or a deep reader?”

  1. I never thought of it this way! I dive deep but still dip my toes in the shallow end. 🙂

    I read multiple works by one author, but not necessarily all works. I also dive deep into time periods or movements, like the Harlem Renaissance, or poems translated from Spanish to English, or whatever phase I’m going through.

  2. I’m more on the shallow end, if you like to put it this way. I do have a weakness for books set in the Victorian era, especially if they involve a ghost or two. One of the great things about keeping a record of the books I read on my blog was that it made me realize which genres I tend to gravitate to. I may be reading a few contemporary novels but after a while I feel the need to go back to horror. Stephen King started it all – after reading more than 20 of his books my preference for horror was sealed. And no, it doesn’t bother me one bit.

    1. Hi Delia

      It’s interesting, isn’t it, when you start to keep track? That’s how I realised about my shallow reading habits. I think 20 books counts as going pretty deep into Stephen King 🙂

  3. That certainly is a different way of looking at things. And like you said, its less a value judgement and more a matter of interest. Now I can call myself an indiscriminate reader and not worry about it!

  4. By that definition I’m quite a shallow reader, though there are topics I’ll read about again and again. And of course when studying you have to by default. If there’s a book on the same topic but from a different point of view (so generally non-fiction) that can seem enough of a change to be worth it. I do try to read backlists, but that would be difficult to keep going due, ironically, to my shallow reading and the number of authors I’ve read!

  5. I’m as shallow as it gets and a happy reader for it. More often than not, I’m in various stages of reading up to three or four books at a time, all different subjects, different genres, different time periods.

    Right now, I’m reading two fiction novels by Joshilyn Jackson, The War of Art and a bibliophile mystery by Kate Carlisle. And when the mood strikes me, I’ll pick up Charles Dickens, Stephen King or someone’s autobiography. I don’t go anywhere without a book. I need to read.

    1. Hi Erica

      Thanks for commenting. Your reading habits sound similar to mine! The terms shallow and deep tend to imply value judgements, with deep being superior, but in this case I just used them as ways of describing different types of reader. It’s interesting already in the comments to see how people’s habits differ. It’s good to be happy with your reading style – I probably shouldn’t try to be what I’m not, but the idea of reading a particular subject or author’s work in depth still seems to have a strong pull for me 🙂

      1. I’m a shallow reader, definitely. I usually grab a book (mostly non-fiction) on any kind of topic which interests me, then get that ONE BIG IDEA, apply it a bit and move on to the next book. Whenever I need to dig deeper on something, I might get back. I learned this in college; my professor calls it defensive reading. For me it’s practical and saves me more time for many other activities. Very nice post, Andrew.

        1. Defensive reading! I like it, Jenifer 🙂 Never heard that term before. I guess you’re right – you can always go back to something later if you want to go into more depth. In the meantime, there are so many other topics, so many other activities! Thanks for reading the post and leaving such a thoughtful comment.

  6. I’m jumping up and down here, Andrew – hollering “me too! me too!” as I jump!

    You nailed the REASON that I am (mostly) a shallow reader (who also, at times, envies deep readers and their expert status) – that “… conviction that, as good as this book or this writer was, the next one might be even better.” – so compelling!

    Thanks for this post.

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