What we lose by read­ing 100,000 words ev­ery day but not div­ing into a good book

Calgary Herald - - BOOKS - JEN­NIFER HOWARD

Reread­ing a favourite book is a plea­sure and skill, one of many that neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf fears we might be los­ing in this era of screen im­mer­sion. In Reader, Come Home, she re­counts an ex­per­i­ment she did on her­self: She tried to reread Her­mann Hesse’s Mag­is­ter Ludi, a novel she calls “one of the most in­flu­en­tial books of my ear­lier years.”

Her first at­tempt did not go well. “My grafted, spas­modic, on­line style, while ap­pro­pri­ate for much of my day’s or­di­nary read­ing, had been trans­ferred in­dis­crim­i­nately to all of my read­ing, rend­ing my for­mer im­mer­sion in more dif­fi­cult texts less and less sat­is­fy­ing,” she writes. Wolf soon tried again, forc­ing her­self to start with 20-minute in­ter­vals, and man­aged to re­cover her “for­mer read­ing self.”

But the vexed ques­tion be­hind the ex­per­i­ment — “What would now be­come of the reader I had been?” — winds through­out Reader, Come Home.

Wolf wants to un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing to our read­ing brains at this his­toric junc­ture be­tween the old ways and the new. A life­long book lover who turned her fas­ci­na­tion with read­ing into a ca­reer as a cog­ni­tive neuroscientist, she con­tin­ues to ex­plore how hu­mans learned to do such an as­ton­ish­ing thing as read in the first place.

Un­like sight and vi­sion, as Wolf ex­plained in her 2007 book, Proust and the Squid, the abil­ity to read did not nat­u­rally evolve in hu­mans. In her new book she ex­plores neu­ro­plas­tic­ity — the amaz­ing adapt­abil­ity of our brains — and sketches out the “neu­ro­log­i­cal cir­cus” set in mo­tion when a reader en­coun­ters words. She com­pares the many el­e­ments that read­ing sets in mo­tion — vi­sion, lan­guage, cog­ni­tion — to the in­ter­ac­tions among the per­form­ers in a three­r­ing cir­cus. Wolf pushes the anal­ogy harder than she needs to, but it does con­vey a sense of the neu­ro­log­i­cal ac­ro­bat­ics the read­ing brain per­forms.

While neu­ro­plas­tic­ity al­lowed hu­mans to de­velop our “deep­read­ing cir­cuit,” she says, it also makes us vul­ner­a­ble to con­stant streams of dig­i­tal in­put. Clutch­ing cell­phones, scrolling through In­sta­gram feeds, brows­ing web­sites all day, “we in­habit a world of dis­trac­tion.”

One of many use­ful stud­ies she cites found that the av­er­age per­son “con­sumes about 34 gi­ga­bytes across var­ied de­vices each day” — some 100,000 words’ worth of in­for­ma­tion. “Nei­ther deep read­ing nor deep think­ing can be en­hanced by the aptly named ‘chop­block’ of time we are all ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, or by 34 gi­ga­bytes of any­thing per day,” Wolf ar­gues. That’s true enough. I did a quick Google search — one of many dig­i­tal de­tours I made as I wrote this re­view — and learned that Mid­dle­march con­tains about 316,000 words. Even in grad school I would have got­ten very lit­tle out of the novel if I’d sped-read a third of it in 24 hours.

Wolf sees good rea­son to be alarmed, but Reader, Come Home veers away from de­spair over the life dig­i­tal. This isn’t Ni­cholas G. Carr’s The Shal­lows. Wolf thinks (hopes) that a “bilit­er­ate brain” will evolve in young hu­mans, who could learn to de­velop “dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent modes of read­ing from the out­set.” She wants kids to be­come “ex­pert code switch­ers,” able to move among me­dia and from light read­ing to deep anal­y­sis and back again the way bilin­gual peo­ple switch be­tween lan­guages. We can hope.

Prac­ti­cal in­ter­ven­tions will be nec­es­sary. Wolf rec­om­mends that early-child­hood ed­u­ca­tion con­tinue to fo­cus on print ma­te­ri­als, with dig­i­tal de­vices and lessons added over time. That in­cludes how to code — es­sen­tial for learn­ing “that se­quence mat­ters,” whether it’s in a piece of writ­ing or a piece of soft­ware — and how to han­dle time and dis­trac­tions. (Sign me up.) Wolf calls for teach­ers to be bet­ter trained to use tech­nol­ogy ef­fec­tively in class­rooms. Hand­ing out iPads does not teach chil­dren how to read well on those de­vices nor to man­age time on them. That re­quires ac­tive guid­ance from adults in the class­room and at home. She also wants (and is in­volved in) more re­search on how best to sup­port learn­ers, in­clud­ing peo­ple with dys­lexia, who are not served by tra­di­tional ap­proaches to lit­er­acy. It’s one of the brightest prospects sparked by the dig­i­tal leap.

Dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy can per­pet­u­ate in­equal­i­ties as well as solve them. Not ev­ery kid grows up with books in the house. Not ev­ery kid has ac­cess to a com­puter or the In­ter­net ei­ther. And that’s only the first hur­dle, as Wolf knows. “Merely hav­ing ac­cess does not en­sure a child’s abil­ity to use dig­i­tal de­vices in pos­i­tive ways,” she says.

Even as it keeps one eye on the fu­ture, Reader, Come Home em­bod­ies some old-fash­ioned read­ing plea­sures, with quotes from Italo Calvino, John Dunne, Toni Mor­ri­son, Mar­cel Proust, Elie Wiesel and other il­lus­tri­ous word-work­ers. It un­folds as a series of let­ters ad­dressed to “Dear Reader” from “Your Au­thor,” a call to re­mem­ber that books come alive as ex­changes be­tween writ­ers and read­ers.

That struc­ture can make Reader, Come Home feel — in a corny but charm­ing way — like a throw­back to an era al­ready

Wolf calls for teach­ers to be bet­ter trained. Hand­ing out iPads does not teach chil­dren how to read well on those de­vices nor to man­age time on them.

gone, if it ever ex­isted. Wolf of­fers a per­sua­sive cat­a­logue of the cog­ni­tive and so­cial good cre­ated by deep read­ing, but does not re­ally ac­knowl­edge that the abil­ity to read well has never been univer­sal.

Still, she makes a sound case that if we don’t pro­tect and cul­ti­vate what Dunne called the “quiet eye,” we could not only lose the plea­sures of read­ing but also has­ten the ero­sion of core demo­cratic val­ues, al­ready un­der siege in U.S. pub­lic and pri­vate life.

She wor­ries that we now lack the “cog­ni­tive pa­tience” nec­es­sary to iden­tify fake news and to en­ter­tain points of view very dif­fer­ent from our own. That makes the ail­ing body politic more vul­ner­a­ble to dem­a­gogues, white su­prem­a­cists, Rus­sian hack­ers and other poi­sonous in­flu­ences. (Dis­clo­sure: Wolf quotes from a rel­e­vant es­say I wrote, In­ter­net of Stings, pub­lished in the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment in 2016.)

In Reader, Come Home, Wolf spells out what needs pro­tect­ing: the knowl­edge, an­a­lyt­i­cal think­ing, ca­pac­ity for sus­tained at­ten­tion and em­pa­thy for oth­ers in­spired by im­mer­sion in books. She’s right that dig­i­tal me­dia doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally doom deep read­ing and can even en­hance it. She’s also cor­rect that we have a lot to lose — all of us — if we don’t pay at­ten­tion to what we’re do­ing with tech­nol­ogy and what it’s do­ing to us.


“Nei­ther deep read­ing nor deep think­ing can be en­hanced by the aptly named ‘chop­block’ of time we are all ex­pe­ri­enc­ing,” says cog­ni­tive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf in her new book, Reader, Come Home.

Reader, Come Home: The Read­ing Brain in a Dig­i­tal World Maryanne Wolf Harper


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