An Experiment in Deep Reading, by Shanoya Murphy

Corrigan’s Editorial Note: In my English Composition I course, I have started asking students to experiment with how they read, first reading a book (James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time) as they usually would, then rereading that same book while trying out my advice for how to read deeply, then writing a comparison and contrast essay weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each way of reading and deciding how they would like to read going forward—a third way of reading that is their own new way. The idea is that, rather than simply being told how to read, students will practice what Ellen C. Carillo calls “mindful reading,” developing a metacognitive perspective on reading. Upon completing the experiment in Fall 2017, her first semester in college, Shanoya Murphy wrote the following essay, offering a clear explanation of just what she learned—which was precisely what I hoped students would learn.

Over the past few weeks, I did an experiment on the effectiveness of my reading. I used the book The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin to test my experience. I first read The Fire Next Time the way that I have always read my entire life, what comes to me naturally. Then, I reread the book using the “Deep Reading Method” and logged my findings. While “deep reading,” I tested reading with vs. without intertexts, annotating vs not annotating, and reading once vs. rereading to find out how reading the “natural” way or the “deep reading” way helped or hurt me.

One part of my experiment was to read the book once without intertexts and again with intertexts. Before beginning this project, I didn’t even know what an intertext was. It was then explained to me that intertexts are texts that relate to and somewhat give more context to what you are reading. They can help a person better understand what they are reading. Intertexts may be actual writing, multimedia texts, or even having a conversation with a person who also has knowledge of the topics of text at hand. The Fire Next Time, although short, is filled with a lot of language that might fly across someone’s head if they do not seek the proper understanding. The first time I read The Fire Next Time, I understood some of what James Baldwin was saying, because of my own experiences and studying much of the contexts that he was speaking on beforehand, but I had trouble understanding or relating to James, when he spoke about the hatred he had towards his father and being taken advantage of by police officers. The intertexts that I used were “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, the introduction to The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward, and a conversation with my mother about the abuse she suffered by her father. Since the main character of “Sonny’s Blues” also did not get along with his father, using this as an intertext helped me to see just how much James disliked his father, that he would put his issues with him in his fictional writings. Another intertext that greatly helped me to understand police brutality was the introduction to The Fire This Time. That essay spoke on police brutality and how it still goes on today. Many people seem to believe that the circumstances around being black in America has completely changed from the 1950s and The Fire This Time proves that it hasn’t. The conversation with my mother gave me greater insight on how the hurt from being abused by their parents, as children, follows many people around throughout adulthood. With so many great insightful intertexts, I started to understand The Fire Next Time a lot better. I began to better understand experiences that were not my own. I absolutely believe that reading with intertexts is a very beneficial part of gaining a better understanding of texts that you have trouble understanding or relating to.

Usually when reading, I tend to want to read as fast as I can to get over with it. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think to underline and annotate an entire book. This part of “Deep Reading” was the hardest part for me, simply because it took a lot longer to finish reading than I would have preferred. I reluctantly decided that I would annotate throughout the book. I looked for things I thought were important, interesting, and difficult to understand. In the margins, I wrote what came to my mind and what I thought different things meant. When I didn’t understand or know what something meant, I highlighted it to research and have a conversation with myself to gain a better understanding. This way took a lot out of me but I am so glad that I stuck with it to continue through the entire book. When I read the book for the first time, it was so bland and at times boring that I would find myself falling asleep because I was so unengaged. When I read it the second time while annotating, I noticed that I was much more engaged with the writing and I was understanding and began noticing a lot more than I did before. This reading method was very beneficial. It helped me to confront any difficulties that I had when reading, that I would have otherwise just skipped over and ignored. I know that it helped greatly with my reading comprehension and I am so grateful.  

Reading again things that were difficult for me has never been my go-to, but I tried it during my experiment with “Deep Reading” and I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think that when reading a text once, I could miss so much of what the author was trying to convey. Reading the text again is not what elevates your comprehension. It’s reading with engagement, with a purpose. And that is where “Deep Reading” comes along. “Deep Reading” forces you to read beyond what is on the surface and your scope of understanding. You must read with a purpose, a purpose that will keep you growing as a reader. When reading a text once, without deep reading, there isn’t much of an opportunity to fully grasp everything the author was trying to say. The first time I read The Fire Next Time I just read it just because I needed to. I didn’t leave any room for growth or understanding. For many parts of the book I just skimmed to pass finish reading as soon as possible. I knew that I wasn’t getting as much out of the book that I possibly could have but that was not my concern, only finishing quickly. When I read the book again, practicing my “Deep Reading” exercises that I stated above, the reading, although long, helped me to know and understand what James Baldwin was saying in The Fire Next Time. Understanding what I was reading helped me to successfully complete my homework to a proper level by forcing me to think outside of the box that I have put myself in my entire life.

“Deep Reading” helped me in many ways to become a better reader. I learned how to read beyond what is on the surface, what intertexts were and how to use them to my advantage, and to not to fear thinking critically by annotating my books and other texts to gain a greater understanding of all the different concepts that an author encompasses into their writing. I consider what I leaned during the “Deep Reading Experiment” to be greatly important and something that I will absolutely continue to do in the future. With all that I have learned, I still have a few questions. What happens when the book is longer than 100 pages?  How do I practice “Deep Reading” in a timely manner?  “Deep Reading” is great for when there is much down time, but what about when a person is on a full and strict schedule? How do they find a way to read deeply that won’t cut into the time that they need for other things? Even with all these questions, I still find “Deep Reading” to be an effective method for gaining a better understanding of what you are reading.

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