The English verb read 1 is an etymological cousin to the word riddle.2 In its older uses, reading was the activity of analyzing and decoding the symbolic elements of life, be they in dreams or in books or in daily affairs. One would ask another for “a rede 3 of the situation,” as we would today ask for someone’s “take on it” or “interpretation of it.”
This is no profound observation. It is commonly understood today that reading requires more than identifying symbols with sounds. No one would deny that a degree of interpretation is involved. Evidence of this present-day understanding may be found in the relatively new synonymous relationship between the words literacy and competence; we now have, for example, “computer literacy,” in which one must be able to associate icons with functions, or translate between a written/spoken text-language and a hypertext-language, etc. The new literacies may have nothing to do with words in the conventional sense, and this follows from the etymological fact that reading was never exclusively about words either.
But one limitation of the present-day understanding of reading is found in a general failure to distinguish between verbal or pictorial symbolism and concept-relation. The expansion of the word literacy comes from a recognition that verbal symbolism is about more than words in the conventional sense, so we do read many things and are taught about a wider range of symbols and a greater possibility for symbolic function. But we are not taught how to read concept-relations. This point is subtle but important. The difference between verbal symbolism and concept-relation is like the difference between “reading” something and “reading into” something.
Most of us are accustomed to many forms of reading, but so many are not comfortable with deep reading. We can easily handle a variety of word- or picture-function relationships, but we are at a loss when we encounter texts that present relationships in which concepts must be held together in addition to the verbal or pictorial presentation in the text. A simple evidence of how we avoid concept-relation reading (deep reading) is in pop rap and hip hop: we are fine with similes as long as the words bring two concepts into immediate combination, but if the analogy is extended, requiring the reader to hold those concepts together when the word or picture is no longer present, then the poem loses its pop appeal.
I will cut this thought short because it is falling into the trap of jargon. All this is to say that I think we avoid deep reading not because we are lazy, but because there is some problem in the way that we read or in what we think reading is.
1 From Dutch raden, from German raten.
2 From Dutch raadsel, from German Rätsel.
3 An old variant of read; it was used as both a noun (so in the sentence above) and a transitive verb.