In a first-year anthropology course, it’s still common to mention Clifford Geertz’s venerable classic on thick description.1 But it seems to me that, for some, the luster of Geertz’s insight has faded. I’m still partial to his work, but the idea of interpreting cultures as texts seems outdated as anthropologists work to decolonize the discipline. People have long since taken on the task of interpreting their own cultures, for example. So the idea of the anthropologist as interpreter-the idea of the anthropologist as author2—seems out dated.
Yet, I think Geertz’s point remains, for those who try to write—which remains a lot of students, scholars, and researchers.
But what does it mean to think about interpreting and thick description. In part, its a process of writing?
Here, I think Geertz’s insight into thick description is worth considering. His point is not just that the goal is a complex and nuanced understanding, e. g. one that distinguishes between a burlesque wink and an eye twitch, or a friendly wink, a flirtatious wink, an involuntary blink, or whatever. His point is that the trick is to tease apart the layers of cultural meaning in certain actions.
How to get at the meaning of something. How do to make meaning? What’s the process? The secret code? Writing, is his answer.
Why? This takes time. Might thick description then require deep writing.
Here I find Maryanne Wolf’s work on deep reading useful. In her books Reader, Come Home3 and Proust and the Squid4 are important. I recently listened to Wolf on the Ezra Klein Show5 where Wolf discusses the literature in neuroscience about the difference between how we read in the digital age, in the context of social media and doom scrolling and vast amounts of news and ever-present screens, and how we read when we are deeply immersed in a physical, paper, book. They’re different. Which is a development of Nicholas Carr’s insight into deep reading6
The Internet has changed the way we read. Wolf’s points, for my purposes, are threefold.
1. Reading is not one task. It’s many tasks. There is no one activity that we can call reading that evolved in the human brain. Rather, reading is something we have learned to do. That is, when we learn to read, we rewire our brains. It is the medium that shapes how the rewiring takes place. (Here Wolf draws on Marshall McLuhan’s famous The Medium is the Message7 and his students).
Plasticity means that the way we read will reflect the affordances of the medium. This was the point that McLuhan was making, his student Walter Ong was making, certainly Postman was making, as you [Klein] alluded to in your August essay. All of these people were on to the basic principle that how we read on a medium changes what we perceive, what we understand.
So the medium changes the way we read. It changes the kinds of connections we make. It changes the way we engage with a text.
The point? Reading digitally, on screens, on social media, is different from immersing yourself in a book. It’s the difference between skimming an email or doom-scrolling on Twitter/X and getting sucked into a novel, and really being immersed. It’s the kind of reading I might have done as a student, but increasingly do less of.
I can, however, vividly remember moments of deep reading. The first time I read Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects8. I read it in one sitting, on a flight home from a conference, and the book stayed with me. So much so that I’m working on a book of fragments inspired by it. Or when I read Michael Taussig’s Law in a Lawless Land9 as a student, which shaped my own travel to Colombia. But, when I tried to read them recently, I was so distracted, I couldn’t get into them. I think it was screen versus paper, planes versus offices. But, when I read deeply, that’s where ideas came from.
2. It’s the time spent. The time spent reading! We often confuse this with, for example, the information, the fact, and the learning process. As Wolf and Ezra Klein point out in their conversation, our digital age has forgotten this key message.
Sam Bankman-Fried, yes, that one, the disgraced former media darling and head of a defunct crypto-trading firm now under investigation, said he didn’t like books because a lot of books should be six-paragraph blog posts. He’s wrong. Ezra Klein, who’s written a lot of books and a lot of six-paragraph blog posts, points out here that they’re quite different. The key is that the book allows the reader to spend a lot of time with an idea. It’s the time spent reading that really starts to rewire the brain—the plastic mind.
3. Habits matter. Klein and Wolf point out that over the past decade, habits have changed, replacing our ability to read deeply. Few of us have the experience Klein describes of reading for hours on end, our synapses firing and insights and epiphanies emerging. In part, we went digital. In part, we got busy.
What do I take away from these points (that reading is not a task, that time matters, and that habits matter)? Well, I think deep reading is a good idea to use to think about deep writing.
If someone were to do the neurological research, and perhaps people have done it, I suspect they would find that writing is similar to reading. Truly immersive writing, writing for a long period, over and over again, is where the synapses are firing and the mind is getting rewired. Writing, like reading, is not something we’ve evolved to do. Writing, like reading, works in part because we rewire our minds through do it. Writing, like reading, requires creating a habit of writing.
I think a lot of the writing that academics do has almost become an exercise not in deep writing or reading, but in a kind of shallowness. Reading becomes looking for references, and publishing one more thing. Writing becomes less deep writing, but a thinner, shallower kind of writing.
This is inevitably truer, a generative text and AI take over the classroom. It does to writing what skimming does to reading? That is? It will inevitably reshape how students think.
How do you write deeply? You do it by doing it. By revising. By writing. By rewriting. I’m thinking here of William Germano’s excellent On Revision,10 in which Germano explores and reflects on revision as the only writing that really matters. Germano is a former editor and now professor, whose book “From Dissertation to Book” gave me workmanlike advice on how to turn my dissertation into a book. In his new book, Germano makes an important point about the fact that we live and work in a world of data and narrative.
He draws a divide between data-driven researchers and narrative-driven researchers. Data-driven researchers are those who work in the sciences, mathematics, engineering, and social sciences, which have adopted quantitative methods. Narrative remains in the humanities and much of the social sciences. I am a narrative anthropologist. My job is to weave narrative together to build and support arguments. It’s about what people do and why, and how they live. Germano’s point, of course, is that there is a commonality in the work we do between the social sciences and the humanities in that we build narratives in different ways. Academic writing, then, is a carefully crafted form of nonfiction. It’s a form of narrative scholarship. But if there’s been a thinning out of scholarship, a reading that has become serial quotation, then the question is what comes next? That’s what my book is about. It’s about how to do deep writing.
Germano’s other point is that writing is thinking, which I think is true and too often mistaken. We use cognitive metaphors when we talk about writing. You analyzed, he thought, he understood. Sure, but they did it on the page. Writing is thinking. So what is deep writing?Well, first of all, I think it comes from spending time on a piece of writing. Just as a short piece of writing might take a short amount of time to really work out what you think about something, the process is as important as the end result. And we miss that.
In this sense, I come back to Geertz’s insight and the hermeneutic argument that what anthropologists do is thick description as a kind of interpretation. But, I think it is crucial, we do on the page, in the text. That is the thinking.
Now, of course, this is culturally specific. Other mediums create other connections. But I know for myself that the culture of writing enables a certain kind of thinking. If superficial writing is done quickly, or by rote, or by AI, then I think it will lead to superficial writing. Shallow writing.
How do you learn to write thick, write deep?
In my case, it’s hard work. You can learn from others, but in the end I keep coming back to a piece of writing. Read it aloud. Listen to it. Print it. Highlight it. Rewrite it. Revise it. Revise it again. This process of a dozen or a hundred is the work of writing. It takes time.
And if Wolf is right that reading creates a plasticity of the mind that creates ways of thinking very different from the surfing and skimming that most of us do, then I think it’s clear that writing is qualitatively different from the alternative. Not least because in writing we spend time working through things, reshaping our minds, refining ideas, working them out, clarifying them, communicating them, explaining information. All of this is generative, creating connections on the page and in the mind. That’s what deep writing can do.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we should give up on shallow reading or shallow writing. There is, of course, a place for both. For scrolling through emails and for responding quickly.
But, deep writing and shallow writing are not the same thing. Both changes how you think.
- Geertz, “Thick Description.”↩︎
- Geertz, Works and Lives.↩︎
- Wolf, Reader, Come Home.↩︎
- Wolf, Proust and the Squid.↩︎
- The Ezra Klein Show, The Ezra Klein Show.↩︎
- Carr, The Shallows.↩︎
- McLuhan, The Medium Is the Message.↩︎
- Stewart, Ordinary Affects.↩︎
- Taussig, Law in a Lawless Land.↩︎
- Germano, On Revision.↩︎