Deep Reading: The Skill to Absorb Everything You Read

written by

Deep Reading: The Skill to Absorb Everything You Read

Deep reading helped me level up my reading practice in every possible way:

  • I become totally absorbed in books.
  • Everything I read is more memorable.
  • Books are more attractive to me than social media.

Ironically, I discovered it after a long and painful reading drought that was caused by… reading too much. See, I stopped getting value out of books. I only wanted results but stopped enjoying the process of reading altogether.

Deep reading, however, brought back the joy. My reading practice turned from exhaustion to ecstasy. From boredom to bliss. From mediocrity to magic.

So let’s find out what deep reading is, why it is so powerful, and how you can apply it to get more out of everything you read.

What Is Deep Reading?

I like to define deep reading as the intentional practice of complete engagement with a text.

It doesn’t matter whether you deep-read for enjoyment or education. What matters is that you eliminate distractions, open your mind, and really take your time with a book. That’s why deep reading is also called slow reading.

I love how Sven Birkerts put it in his book The Gutenberg Elegies, where he coined the term:

“[Deep reading is] the slow and meditative possession of a book. We don’t just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity.”

To deep-read is to crawl through the page into a different universe.

Deep Reading vs. Speed Reading

The evil sibling of deep reading is speed reading (or shallow reading). That is, skimming a text without internalizing it. And before you jump at my virtual throat — yes, speed reading can be helpful in specific situations.

But speed reading means consuming information like fast food: it feels like a quick win, but you don’t get long-lasting value out of it. “There is no such magic bullet,” researchers write about speed reading. “There is a trade-off between speed and accuracy in reading.”

Another problem with reading too much too quickly is reading for reading’s sake. For example, I noticed the more books I read, the more I see them as vanity metrics. And so, the number of books I’d finish every month fueled my ego rather than my mind.

In this sense, reading can also become a form of procrastination. When you bombard your brain with information, it becomes tough to implement what you read. Books turn into a substitution for your actions rather than a supplement.

Put differently: Speed reading is like swiping through snapshots of a place, whereas deep reading is like actually going there. Sadly, the former has become the norm in our hyper-active modern lifestyle.

And this is where deep reading provides a powerful antidote…

Why Deep Reading Is So Powerful (4 Benefits)

So far, we’ve seen that shallow reading leads to:

  • Pursuing arbitrary numbers and vanity metrics.
  • Letting ideas slip through your brain like water through a sieve.
  • Getting stuck with reading while forgetting about the real work.

But what makes deep reading better? Is it really worth sacrificing speed for depth? Prioritizing quality over quantity? Turns out, in the vast majority of cases, the answer is yes. Here are the four biggest benefits of deep reading:

  1. Prescribed for your mind. Deep reading is our default mode of dealing with texts. This is because our brains are simply not wired to deal with information overflow. Just think back to when you were a child. How easy it was to dive into a story. To really be there with a book. Now, compare that to switching between tabs and skimming through twenty different articles. Which approach do you think is more fruitful?
  2. Deeper thinking. Discovering nuggets of inspiration in books is great. But I found that reading isn’t really about that. It’s about spending time with someone else’s thoughts. And the more you engage with a book, the more you associate those thoughts with other unique ideas. Thus, reading deeply becomes fuel for creativity. Or, as Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows, “Deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking.”
  3. More value. Once you’re really immersed in a book, it follows you everywhere. Whether it’s a character from a novel or a philosophical idea—you start viewing the world through that lens. This effect is called priming. And that, in turn, makes it easier for you to take positive action based on that information.
  4. Improved focus. Today’s era of data overload makes us think a potentially better piece of information is always just one click away. This constant switching can take a serious toll on your attention. Deep reading, on the other hand, can improve your focus. It teaches your brain to commit to one task.

So what are some concrete ways to practice deep reading?

5 Ways to Harness the Power of Deep Reading

Ever since I started to deep-read, I get more value out of two chapters than two entire books. I’m not joking. Sure, sometimes I still switch to skimming — when I need to hunt down one specific piece of information, for example.

But the essence of my creative juice — ideas, inspiration, motivation — all of these things stem directly from deep reading.

Here’s everything I’ve learned about deep reading condensed into five actionable tips.

Do the opposite of speed reading

This one’s simple: Try to slow down your reading speed. Give your mind the space and time to reflect on a chapter. Forget about “getting through” the book and focus on the process. Be there

Don’t see this as a challenge. See it as a welcome break from the constant information barrage.

Read useful and enjoyable books

This sounds obvious, but I know many people who ignore their own taste. They pick a book they think they’ll like and then force themselves to read it cover to cover.

If that sounds familiar, here are some factors to consider:

  • Long vs. short books
  • Fiction vs. non-fiction
  • Complex vs. simple language
  • Entertaining vs. thought-provoking content

And just to be clear: Reading doesn’t always need to be productive. There’s nothing wrong with short, simple, and entertaining books. In fact, I have a selection of easy, digestible books I turn to whenever I notice my attention span dwindling.

The takeaway is that once you’ve found something that’s enjoyable or useful, it becomes much easier to immerse yourself in a text.

Make time

I used to read while doing all kinds of other stuff — eating, brushing my teeth, sitting on the toilet. Not surprisingly, I never remembered what I read.

I didn’t make reading a priority.

So, if you really want to submerge into the pages of a book, here’s what I can recommend:

  • Eliminate all other distractions. No music, no other people, no snacking. Just focus on reading. Forget about multitasking altogether.
  • Set a timer for 30 minutes and commit to reading for that time. If you get distracted too often, start smaller and work yourself up. You’ll quickly notice how much your focus improves.

Choose your setup

Some people think reading always requires note-taking, highlighting, and writing summaries. But I think these things can actually create friction. And if applied wrong, they can ruin your deep reading experience.

As an antidote, I encourage you to define your “why” before a deep reading session. Ask yourself, “What’s my goal for reading this?”

  • To relax and rewind?
  • To complete an assignment for work?
  • Or to expand your mind and get fresh ideas?

Based on this answer, you can easily find out what tools and habits you need to get the most out of your reading. A philosophical pamphlet requires more active engagement than a romance novel, for example.

Here are the two setups I currently use:

  1. The lazy bookworm. This is my go-to setup before I go to sleep or simply want to wind down. No gimmicks required. I just lie down with an easy-to-read novel and let the pages draw me in.
  2. The curious page crawler. This is the approach I use to do research for my writing. I sit down at my desk for better focus. Markers, pens, and paper are within reach. When it comes to the actual reading, I go through chapters twice. The first time to get the gist of it. The second time to pick apart all the information. Yes, this process is slow. But it pays off endlessly.

So, create your own setups. Experiment with what works best. Make books work for you, not against you.

Re-read

The best books contain wisdom for 100 re-reads. Think about it — a highly gifted human condensed years of research and experience into a few hundred pages. You simply can’t grasp all of that in one go.

That’s why I re-read a few books every single year. I always discover something new. I always make new connections. 

It’s an infinite process of sculpting out the passages that matter most to you.

I never regretted re-reading the books I love.

Feel the Magic

I could talk on and on about deep reading, but you should really experience it for yourself.

What does deep reading feel like? It’s like being in a state of flow. It’s like oscillating your brain waves to a higher frequency. It’s creating a resonance between you and the author.

I love the way Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall describe it in their book Transforming Literacy:

“[D]eep reading is not an escape, but a discovery. Deep reading provides a way of discovering how we are all connected to the world and to our own evolving stories. Reading deeply, we find our own plots and stories unfolding through the language and voice of others.”

Dare to deep-read in a shallow world.

Dare to discover.

Dare to find your plot.