What we lose by read­ing 100,000 words ev­ery day

A NEU­RO­SCI­EN­TIST EX­PLORES HOW SCREENS HAVE DE­STROYED OUR ABIL­ITY TO READ THOUGHT­FULLY

The Nation - - NEW CHAPTERS -

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 “The Glass Bead Game” ( aka “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 20minute 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 three-ring 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 “deep-read­ing cir­cuit”, she ex­plains, 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”, she writes.

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 got 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 ear­ly­child­hood 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 or man­age time on them. That re­quires ac­tive guid­ance from adults in the class­room and at home. She also wants more ( and is in­volved in) 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 writes.

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 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 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.

Reader, Come Home: The Read­ing Brain in a Dig­i­tal World By Maryanne Wolf Pub­lished by Harper Avail­able at ma­jor book­shops, Bt772 Re­viewed by Jen­nifer Howard

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