Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in A Digital World

Maryanne Wolf
5
Apr 17, 2020

Socrates famously worried that the development of writing would atrophy the ability to store and remember information, that dependence on external memory would negatively change the brain. And he was right, reading and writing have changed the way human brains work--though whether for better or worse is still up for debate. Similarly, Nicholas G. Carr famously asked Is Google Making Us Stupid? in an article in The Atlantic a dozen years ago. He examined how the act of reading is changing in a digital age and worried it is negatively impacting the way our brains process information. Maryanne Wolf takes up similar thoughts in this book.

Wolf offers a wonderful examination of both how reading works in the brain and how it shapes the brain, along with our thought processes and interactions with others, and what might be gained and lost in the development of a contrasting digital literacy. Like Carr, her starting point is alarmist, but she opens herself widely to the possibilities of beneficial alternatives to traditional literacies. What she finds most important to preserve, regardless of medium, is the ability of people to think deeply--one of contemplative reading's core benefits that appears most at risk in our current transition to a largely digital world. She offers no definitive conclusions, as the transition is still underway and not fully understood, but a worthy, deep exploration of the myriad impacts of reading on who we are as humans.

Wolf makes this exploration equally dense and accessible, packed with thoughtful information--and knowledge and wisdom--and eloquent writing without ever being difficult to engage or understand. There is such a depth and breadth of ideas on display, though, that it is hard to fully digest in a single reading (even with the copious notes I've taken below). It is a treasure trove, worth visiting multiple times to enhance the experience and takeaways. I recommend it to everyone interested in reading and hope to revisit it myself soon.

Will the increasing reliance of our youth on the servers of knowledge prove the greatest threat to the young brain's building of its own foundation of knowledge, as well as to a child's desire to think and imagine for him- or herself? Or will these new technologies provide the best, most complete bridge yet to ever more sophisticated forms of cognition and imagination that will enable our children to leap into new worlds of knowledge that we can't even conceive of in this moment of time? Will they develop a range of very different brain circuits? If so, what will be the implications of those different circuits for our society? Will the very diversity of such circuits benefit everyone? Can an individual reader consciously acquire various circuits, much like bilingual speakers who read different scripts?

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You won't agree with me all the time, and that is as it should be. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, I look at disagreement as the place where "iron sharpens iron." That is my first goal for these letters: that they become a place where my best thoughts and yours will meet, sometimes clash, and in the process sharpen each other. My second goal is for you to have the evidence and information necessary to understand the choices you possess in building a future for your progeny. My third goal is simply what Proust hoped for each of his readers: 

"It seemed to me that they would not be 'my readers' but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass. . . . I would further them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves."

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It is easy to be confused by our reading habits over the last years of transition from a literacy-based to a more digitally influenced culture. Whether based on the reports by the NEA or more recently updated ones, the reality at this point is that we have become so inundated with information that the average person in the United States now reads daily the same number of words as is found in many a novel. Unfortunately, this form of reading is rarely continuous, sustained, or concentrated; rather, the average 34 gigabytes consumed by most of us represent one spasmodic burst of activity after another. Little wonder that American novelists such as Jane Smiley worry that the novel, which requires and rewards a special form of sustained reading, will be "sidelined" by the ever-increasing barrage of words we feel compelled to consume daily. Writing in the 1930s, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin summarized the more universal dimension within this preoccupation with new information in a way that is equally, in not more, true today. We doggedly "pursue a present," he wrote, that consists of "information that does not survive the moment in which it is new."

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When you speak to your children, you expose them to words that are all around them. A wonderful thing. When you read to your children, you expose them to words they never hear in other places and to sentences no one around them uses. This is not simply the vocabulary of books, it is the grammar of stories and books and the rhythm and alliteration of rhymes and limericks and lyrics that are not to be found anywhere else quite so delightfully.

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Most disturbing altogether, close to half of our children who are African-American or Latino do not read in grade four at even a "basic" reading level, much less a proficient one. This means they do not decode well enough to understand what they are reading, which will impact almost everything they are supposed to learn from then on, including math and other subjects. I refer to this period as the "vanishing hole in American education" because if children do not learn to read fluently before this time is over, for all educational purposes, they disappear. Indeed, along the way many of these children become dropouts with little hope of reaching anyone's dream when they grow up.

The Bureaus of Prisons in states across America know this well; many of them project the number of prison beds they will need in the future based on third- or fourth-grade reading statistics. As the former CEO and philanthropist Cinthia Coletti has written, the relationship between grade-four reading levels and dropping out of school is a bitter, overwhelmingly significant finding. She contends that if this many children are seriously underperforming in the schools, our country cannot maintain its leading economic position in the world. Buttressing Coletti's conclusions, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report in which it stated with no ambiguity, "Large undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy."

Only a proficient reading level will ensure that an individual can go on to develop and apply the sophisticated reading skills that will maintain the intellectual, social, physical, and economic health of our country. Two-thirds or more of future US citizens are not even close.

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The most important contribution of the invention of written language to the species is a democratic foundation for critical, inferential reasoning and reflective capacities. This is the basis of a collective conscience. If we in the twenty-first century are to preserve a vital collective conscience, we must ensure that all members of our society are able to read and think both deeply and well. We will fail as a society if we do not educate our children and reeducate all of our citizenry to the responsibility of each citizen to process information vigilantly, critically, and wisely across media. And we will fail as a society as surely as societies of the twentieth century if we do not recognize and acknowledge the capacity for reflective reasoning in those who disagree with us.

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From the first letter to the last, these pages celebrate the human-driven achievement that is the reading brain. In between its pages, my hope was to engage in dialogue with you the reader about my concerns. First, will the very plasticity of a reading brain that reflects the characteristics of digital media precipitate the atrophy of our most essential thought processes--critical analysis, empathy, and reflection--to the detriment of our democratic society? Second, will the formation of these same processes be threatened in our young? . . . 

My third concern . . . is the digital dilemma that is being acted out this moment in the cognitive, affective, and ethical processes now connected in the present reading circuitry and now threatened. . . . to pause for a moment and examine with all our intelligence who we want to be next and what will be the best combinatoria of faculties in the reading brains or our future generations.

Written by Chris K.

Experts estimate that the average cruising airspeed velocity of an unladen European Swallow is roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles an hour.

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