The Poetics of Deep Reading: A Field Guide to Getting Lost in a Book

Photo by Alexandra Fuller on Unsplash.

When was the last time you read a book without checking your phone? Two years ago, we posed this question to our undergraduate students in political anthropology at the University of Oslo. The response: Eighty startled faces staring back across the lecture hall. Our question, and the discussion that ensued, marked the beginnings of an experiment in teaching a voluntary class in “deep reading” with the purpose of guiding students into the joys of getting lost in a book, even a challenging one.

We have all heard teachers lament that “students don’t read anymore.” The blame is on the infrastructure of digital distraction, which defines our academic life. The seminars and reading halls of today’s universities no longer look like they used to. Laptops shine in the faces of the students, while cell phones vibrate and hum for their attention.

Meanwhile, in lunchrooms and cafes, scholars and students discuss the role of digital technology in academic life. An increasing number of teachers opt to ban laptops from lectures. Yet others suggest bringing in digital technology as part of classroom teaching, albeit with caution (e.g., Khalikova 2017). These past months, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the question of what role digital technology should play in academic life more urgent. It is a question that anthropologists, known for their critical perspective on the “taken-for-granted,” are well equipped to reflect on, yet one that anthropology as a discipline has not given sufficient attention.

Ethnographers describe and analyze the growing concerns about digital harm, for instance among “digital detoxers” in the San Francisco Bay Area in the United States (Sutton 2020), but as colleagues, we have not yet come to terms with what role digital technologies should play in our own teaching.

Amid the grumbles, we began a conversation about how to bring reading back into student life, reading that would be undistracted, sustained, tedious, meditative, and in the end, rewarding. We call this deep reading.

From our initial chat over a cup of coffee about students not reading enough to a deeper conversation about how we could change this state of affairs, we offered the students an extra, voluntary seminar. We invited our eighty students in political anthropology to sign up for two voluntary, six-hour deep reading sessions: one held at the start of the semester and one held toward the end. Around thirty signed up for each session through an online form we sent to the class. We booked a pleasant room in the university library with comfortable chairs, and we agreed on a set of guidelines that would enable the group to get lost in their books. Before each seminar, we asked the students to use the following recipe:

  • Bring the same ethnographic monograph from the reading list used in class.
  • Switch cell phones to flight mode, or shut them off, placing them out of reach and out of sight.
  • Bring along a snack.
  • By all means, go to the restroom and take lunch breaks, but keep the silence in our shared reading room and preferably outside this space.
  • If you feel the need, take longhand notes about your reading, but not too many. The point is to read, not to copy. Trust your mind’s ability to absorb and associate.
  • Embrace silence, concentration, and, if necessary, boredom.

. . . reading that would be undistracted, sustained, tedious, meditative, and in the end, rewarding. We call this deep reading.

After spending five silent hours together in the reading room, the pace had slowed—less twitching, coughing, and checking the time. We were ready for an hour of sharing our experiences. The feedback was extraordinary:

  • During the first hour or so, students reported that they struggled to stay focused. Some described the feeling similarly to having withdrawal symptoms, with their phones out of reach and a page staring gravely back at them. Yet eventually, all students entered a state of reading where the pages of the book turned themselves, forming unexpected associations.
  • Students reported being able to read more than they had ever done before in one sitting.
  • Students discovered that they could harness group dynamics to facilitate focus. Once together in the same room, the participants prompted each other to stay away from digital distractions.
  • In refraining from taking excessive notes, they made associations beyond the words on the page.
  • At the end of the semester, one group of students who had participated in our sessions organized new deep reading seminars within other courses. They took greater ownership of their learning experience.
  • As instructors, we were struck by their sense of personal accomplishment and joy after each session due to their success in resisting their habitual distractions.
  • As teachers, we also felt a sense of accomplishment, rediscovering something that had gotten lost in our own work habits—namely the sense of enchantment that an ethnographic narrative, or any narrative, provides if you allow yourself to get lost within it.

In refraining from taking excessive notes, they made associations beyond the words on the page.

During the following two semesters, we set up deep reading seminars at the start and end of four other classes, with similar results from students. Each time, we assigned an ethnographic monograph, and we designated three to six hours of collective reading in silence, enough time to “go deep.” Currently, we are preparing to include deep reading seminars as part of our teaching in Fall 2021. It remains to be seen how these practices can be scaled up, integrated into classroom teaching, or applied in other contexts (including online). Leaving our grumbles behind, we consider our engagement with deep reading as a conversation that has just begun. We invite you all to join in.


Khalikova, Venera R. 2017. “Teaching with Digital Technology: In-Class Applications.” Teaching Tools, Fieldsights, June 2.

Rockmore, Dan. 2014. “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom.” New Yorker, June 6.

Sutton, Theodora. 2020. “Digital Harm and Addiction: An Anthropological View.” Anthropology Today 36, no. 1: 17–22.