Image of book cover - Deep ReadingDeep Reading: Practices to Subvert the Vices of Our Distracted, Hostile, and Consumeristic Age

(Baker Academic 2024)

“Reading for enjoyment is a way that I remember that I’m not a machine. It is a practice of freedom. ... When we engage in reading for enjoyment, we exercise those habits of heart and mind that also help us to rest from our labor and acknowledge that it is God, and not ourselves, who sustains the world.”

Rachel B. Griffis, co-author of Deep Reading

Rachel B. Griffis, Julie Ooms, and Rachel M. De Smith Roberts are all associate professors of English who earned their doctorates at Baylor University. Their friendship began there, and has remained strong through a writing group they established for  reading and revising one another’s academic work. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that they decided to take on a collaborative writing project together. The result was Deep Reading: Practices to Subvert the Vices of Our Distracted, Hostile, and Consumeristic Age. . 

This common endeavor was not always easy. The authors note times of disagreement, not all of which led to compromise. But, in their view, this is not a flaw — instead, it is an act of modeling practices against hostility that their book promotes. In other words, the authors’ friendship and Deep Reading alike put a too-easily forgotten truth on display: Differing opinions are not an inherent problem. Instead, they often point us to deeper truths and nuances than uniformity can provide. 

Griffis, Ooms, and Roberts spoke with Common Good about their collaboration, what stands in the way of deep reading, and how Christians can subvert “the vices of our distracted, hostile, and consumeristic age.” 

The subtitle to Deep Reading is “practices to subvert the vices of our distracted, hostile, and consumeristic age.” How did you identify those three vices?

Rachel B. Griffis: We wrote about subverting vice — and by extension, developing virtue — because understanding sin and our own areas of weakness are aspects of spiritual formation that are not very popular, generally, in Western and American culture. And yet the Bible and Christian tradition demonstrate that encountering and wrestling with our sins is a way we become more Christlike. It is a part of developing virtue and good character. One of my favorite examples of spiritual formation that involves understanding both sin and virtue appears in the Purgatory section of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In this section, the slothful describe their sin, undertake practices to overcome it, and recite an exemplary story of virtue. The story they recite is the Virgin Mary’s, whose enthusiastic response to God’s call is an example of zeal, a virtue that counteracts sloth. In our focus on vices, Deep Reading gives a lot of space to describing sins endemic to American culture, followed by virtuous practices we believe are remedies to those vices that harm both ourselves and our communities. 

Rachel M. Roberts: The three of us are all English professors, so we initially thought about issues that affect our classroom and academic communities; distraction was maybe the most obvious as we often feel we are fighting for our students’ attention. However, Christian higher ed is also deeply affected by hostility and consumerism — we write about these effects in the book. As we thought about a larger audience for the book, though, we realized these three vices apply to our larger culture (both secular and Christian), not just our classrooms.

Julie Ooms: As R.M.R. noted, we all had noticed how difficult it is to get (and keep, for the most part) our students’ attention during class. We’ve also seen an increase in hostility among Christians in particular (though it’s a wider societal problem, of course) over the past decade or so, especially when it comes to how to approach people — and it’s people, not just ideas — with whom we disagree or that we might associate with a societal shift that feels threatening to Christianity.

As we wrote the book, we expanded our audience quite a bit because we recognize that these vices affect all readers, not just students. We hope that the practices we discuss in the book can help all readers identify these vices in themselves and in their reading communities so that they might better cultivate virtues like temperance, humility, and prudence in the pursuit of loving their neighbors as themselves.

The chapter titled “Attentive Reading Processes for the Digital Age” offers several models for readers (and groups of readers) to emulate in their approach to texts. Which would you like to highlight here, and why?

R.M.R.: One practice … boils down to widening our definition of “reading” beyond “a person with a physical book” to include ebooks, audio books, and assistive tools that may help readers access or comprehend a text. We agonized a little about this practice because for most of us (and many of our students), reading and taking notes on a physical text helps us approach a text with minimal distraction and maximum focus. However, we wanted to highlight other possibilities for reading for a couple of reasons: First, we believe that any access to a text is better than no access to a text — so if you know you would never get around to reading a book by sitting down with it on your couch but would listen to it on your daily commute, then doing so counts as reading the book; second, a focus of this chapter (“Attentive Reading Processes for the Digital Age”) is on neurodiversity and on acknowledging that not every reader will have the same response to a physical versus audio versus digital text. Readers must consider what works for them.

That brings us to two other practices in the chapter — they’re in different sections, but they achieve similar goals: keeping a reading log and reflecting on the reading process (for instance, considering what your ideal reading environment is). These are simple exercises that any reader can do individually or alongside a group of readers, and either exercise might be helpful in figuring out what works well for you as a reader and how your attention is focused when you read. I have used both exercises with my students, and in general, my students say they’ve found it helpful to think about (and sometimes experiment with) their reading environment to see what helps or hurts their attention span as they read. Knowing our own habits and tendencies as readers is the first step towards training our attention, and something as simple as a reading log can be a huge help in that attention training.

You write, “The desire for ideological purity shows just how often our practices of selecting texts are shaped by the hostility endemic to online discourse — a hostility that appears not only in spaces related to academia but also within church, friend, and family groups.” How might pastors and faith leaders who see this occurring in their communities shed light on a better way?

J.O.: I think a lot of people would pay a lot of money to be able to answer this question! I know I’m not alone in having seen a lot of evidence of this kind of hostility and the havoc it’s wrought on faith communities in particular. I think, for example, of anecdotal evidence I’ve got (Facebook friends of mine who have left the pastorate in recent years because their congregations had grown so polarized and were being discipled more by social media algorithm and less by their church communities) and reporting on the issue that I’ve read (most recently, Tim Alberta’s book The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory). None of this evidence has left me feeling particularly uplifted. 

I don’t know how to address this hostility in any kind of huge, systemic way, and I think for a lot of people whose spheres of influence are relatively small, trying to do so might lead to something like despair. It has for me in the past, to be honest. I’ve had to really let go of the idea that one of my goals as a teacher is to change my students’ minds, and our book resists that impulse too with its focus on practices instead of on worldview. Thus, I think pastors and faith leaders (as well as teachers and anyone leading a reading community) would do best to start with practices that help pull community members away from arguing about ideas and into attentiveness to a shared text and to each other.

One example from the book that would be helpful here involves intentionally reading multiple translations of a biblical passage or multiple versions of a hymn during a Bible study or community group meeting. Community members could note what similarities and differences they noticed and what effects those differences had on how they read the text. Or they could pair old hymns with contemporary songs that are thematically related, intentionally choosing hymns from a few different traditions, and then end the study sessions by singing together. 

Among other things, these practices are low-stakes ways to help people consider multiple viewpoints not as hostile parties pitted against each other but as different perspectives that all contribute to a larger whole.

While some chapters of the book emphasize the disciplines associated with reading deeply, others highlight the importance of reading deeply for enjoyment. What positive benefits have you personally experienced from doing so?

R.B.G.: Reading for enjoyment is a way that I remember that I’m not a machine. It is a practice of freedom. Early in my adulthood, I figured out that I need to prioritize activities, on a weekly basis, that are solely for my own enjoyment. Reading books for pleasure, and that are not connected to my research or teaching in any way, is one of those activities. When I do not make time to enjoy my life, I find that I am more stressed, anxious, and machine-like. I tend to struggle more with doom-scrolling and with a limited attention span when I am not making time for leisure. In contrast, when I am regularly reading for the sheer joy of it, I have a greater capacity to be attentive to what matters, to be content and happy in my circumstances, and to be generous with my time and energy.  

There’s so much pressure in Western and American culture to turn fun into money, to turn our hobbies into side hustles. And yet we have an amazing tradition in Judaism and Christianity — the commandment to observe the Sabbath — that questions and challenges these cultural norms that tell us we must monetize every aspect of our lives. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his wonderful book, The Sabbath, that this countercultural tradition reminds us that “the world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.” Similarly, when we engage in reading for enjoyment, we exercise those habits of heart and mind that also help us to rest from our labor and acknowledge that it is God, and not ourselves, who sustains the world. 

How might someone who wants to initiate communal reading take a step toward doing so?

R.M.R. and R.B.G.: One way to initiate communal reading might be to integrate reading into the communities you already have — whether that’s discussing what you’re reading with your friends or colleagues, forming a book group at work or church, or choosing to read the same book a friend or family member is reading. If someone gives you a book as a Christmas or birthday gift, read it and talk about it with the person who gave it to you. It is an opportunity to connect, learn, and deepen communal bonds. Reading with just one other person is a simple, practical step you can take toward reading communally. 

R.M.R.: Beyond that, we have some great practices for reading in community. Two of my favorites are asking questions and the act of reading communally. I use questions in my classroom discussions all the time — approaching texts with open-ended questions is a great way to learn from others who may see different aspects of a text than I do. Communal reading — reading in the presence of other people — is newer to me, but I recently did this with a friend who was visiting my home, and our times sitting together on the porch, each reading a separate book, were both peaceful and challenging.

Once you have read a book with another person, or in a group, you might start by sharing your favorite quotations or passages. Reading them aloud can be a lot of fun. If the book involves a unique situation or a character at a crossroads, asking the question “What would you do?” is a great way to dig deeper into the text and to get to know the people with whom you are reading. 

R.B.G.: One of my favorite communal reading practices is to make use of a personality typing system that everyone is familiar with, such as the Enneagram. Typing characters can be a great way to engage with a text, as you examine scenes, dialogue, and what you know about the characters’ internal motivations. This activity can also help you understand people in your own community, who may identify with, or be able to explain, characters you struggle to understand or have little in common with. 

What should I have asked you but didn’t, and what’s the answer?

J.O.: I don’t know what question this answers, but as I went through these questions, I was reminded of how terrible a book club member I have been in the past. I’ve been an English teacher too long and have gotten too used to knowing (or thinking I know) how books should be read. I am still learning about how to be a member of a reading community, not just how to be a leader of a reading community. That said, one of my hopes for our book is that it encourages all members of reading communities — teachers, pastors and other clergy members, students, and all others — to practice humility not just before the texts but before each other as well. 


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Deep Reading is available May 28, 2024, from Baker Academic.