Higher-level reading – reading that goes beyond basic decoding and information extraction – is our most powerful tool for critical thinking. It exercises metacognition, expands our conceptual capacities, trains our attention, patience and cognitive empathy, confronts us with complex inferences, multiple information sources, and alternative versions of reality, actively challenging our preconceptions. All these are social skills which are indispensable for informed citizens in a democratic society. This kind of reading is a main road to personal development and the foundation of life-long learning; it is also a central dimension of social and political interaction.

To participate as informed citizens in a democratic society we need these higher-level reading skills. It is especially long-form texts, such as books, that train us to test different interpretations, discover levels of meaning, find patterns and follow references, detect biases and contradictions, and to establish the sophisticated and fragile connections between texts and cultural backgrounds. Without such training, we are ill-equipped to counter populist simplifications, conspiracy theories and disinformation, and we become vulnerable to manipulation. Without such training, we are also unable to adequately appreciate and react to the complexity of our surroundings, especially the complexity of our fellow human beings. In social situations, such simplifications and reductions often lead to violence.

Why is it necessary to emphasize this now? Firstly, the internet may foster more reading than ever in history, but it also offers many temptations to read in a superficial manner – or not to read at all. Secondly, if 10 % of the adult population suffer from low literacy and a further high percentage is hardly able to understand longer, complex texts; if more than half of our teenagers say that they do not read for leisure – then our democracy is in danger, because a substantial part of the population is not able or willing to appreciate the complexity of the world. That this situation has not been remedied earlier is partly due to the fact that reading is often regarded as a basic skill that can be delegated to primary schools. The complexity of reading, if perceived, is often regarded as a problem to be solved rather than as a mirror of human complexity.

A simplified view of reading disregards the multitude of different processes of human engagement with texts, the variety of readers with their individual levels of skills and strategies, the psychological processes involved in reading, including such fundamental emotions as inspiration and frustration, the numerous barriers to reading — from motivational and knowledge barriers to low literacy — affecting children as well as adults, and the complexity of texts, whether deriving from language, from ideas, or from the human interaction described. Finally, a simplified view of reading dangerously neglects to provide citizens of our democracy with the skills necessary to cope with rising levels of disinformation and manipulative discourse.

Our ability to think critically is inextricably connected with the level of our reading skills. Critical thinking means above all that we are not satisfied with first impressions, that we do not trust our own first understanding. Understanding things is not a one-shot event. Critical in its literal sense means differentiating thinking – a thinking that is open to a complex world and does not require simple solutions. Critical thinking, also, is thinking that takes its time. Reading a long book means accepting that some things cannot be described or analysed in a few sentences. Critical thinking means accepting that we do not immediately think, or understand, clearly – that we are rather, most of the time, hampered by prejudice and bias, by lack and loss of information, by manipulation and lack of skills. A critical thinker, a critical reader, makes time for this complexity.

I have already pointed out in my book The Fragility of Access (2021) that a world constructed to suggest easy access to information desensitizes us to the fact that such access is actually difficult, arduous, and fragile. The very concept of information – on which we have built the ‘information society’ – suggests that there is a package somewhere that just needs to be picked up quickly – once you are thus ‘informed’, you can sit back and relax. This idea, however, ignores the enormous range of our cognitive and linguistic behavior. Recent research in various disciplines has made clear how extremely vulnerable our thinking and language comprehension are. This makes close observation of our cognitive skills and practices indispensable in a democratic society. To focus on the wide-spread provision of information is not enough by far.

This is all the more relevant because fake news and disinformation have increasingly been described as key societal challenges in recent years. On the scale promoted by digital media, they pose clear threats to democracy. Beyond literal disinformation, we are increasingly confronted with mirror discourses, counter-narratives and conspiracy theories, which achieve their effects through the manipulative linking of real facts, the inverted use of historical terms and a multitude of other rhetorical and linguistic mechanisms. The broad study of these specific techniques and the acute need for a multi-dimensional approach to disinformation are evident. This approach needs to include the broad promotion of higher-level reading as a foundation of cognitive resilience.

Before I conclude, let me add my perspective as a librarian: Libraries, as I see them, are sanctuaries for such resilient practices, reading centres focused on concentration and critical thinking. In fact, libraries are the only designated thinking spaces our societies have. As such they are indispensable. Library time is different – not the time of quick judgment, but of openness and deep penetration, of repeated reviewing of what we think we have understood. In libraries, we invest time. Libraries make clear that there is always more to discover, that it is not easy to gain access, that it is not easy to think clearly. Book reading teaches you to make time for complexity. The world is more complex than short information bites. People are more complex than that. Taking your time is thus a necessary social skill. Libraries must remain safe havens for such thinking, if we are not to succumb to the daily blizzard of news.

To conclude: An ‘informed citizen’ without higher-level reading skills is a not yet sufficiently activated part of a democratic society. Texts are tools for thinking, reading is a challenge, an engagement with human expressions and perspectives. Higher-level reading trains central interpersonal skills. The future of reading thus affects the future of our societies. Confronting oneself with other perspectives and questioning oneself in dialogue, not just ‘informing’ oneself or even ‘being informed’, is the hallmark of a reflective, empowered citizen. A democratic society, based on an informed multi-stakeholder consensus can only succeed with resilient readers. Policy-makers in all fields need to be aware that reading is not a basic skill, but rather, as the 2016 European declaration of the right to literacy puts it, “a foundational skill that is essential for adults to function effectively in society as citizens, employees and family members.“ In a shrinking free world, threatened by violence, authoritarianism and populism, it becomes ever clearer that, as Emmanuel Levinas put it, “Freedom consists in knowing that freedom is in danger.” Higher-level reading helps us keep this freedom.


This post was originally delivered as a speech at the launch of the Ljubljana Manifesto at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2023.