Maryanne Wolf's Positive Way Forward for the Modern, Distracted Reader

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

Perhaps this has happened to you: Finally finding a minute to settle in with a good book, you curl up on the sofa and crack open the cover of a book you have been eagerly looking forward to reading. At first, the sensation of the text in your hands and the smell of the crisp, new pages feels, oh, so good. You savor the first few paragraphs. But before long, a panicky twitch starts in your gut and works its way up to your brain. The desire to turn your eyes away to something else becomes irresistible. The window, the next room, your phone. You can no longer bear to pay attention to the words on the page, forgetting most of what you have just read. To dedicated bibliophiles, the sensation is alarming. What happened to those long hours of quiet bliss?

If this isn’t something you experience, I am truly happy for you. But for the rest of us who live in the digital age, a shift has begun to take place in the way we interact with words. Our brains have been rewired to require a constant stream of new information. We are physically hindered in our attempts to read well.

Where did our focus go and how can we reclaim it? Cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid) is out to answer these questions in her latest title: Reader, Come Home. The argument for unplugging is hardly a novel one. Perhaps the most renowned advocate for a return to print, Neil Postman made his case over 30 years ago. But Wolf’s ability to look under the hood of the human brain is her special contribution to the conversation, giving us laymen a glimpse into how digital media is changing our physical makeup.

Wolf begins by demonstrating the miracle of reading. Lest we forget, she reminds us that human beings are not born with the ability to read. If we are lucky, it is something we train our brains to do over the course of many childhood years. During this process the brain must build new pathways so that countless signals can fire across the multiple areas of cognition. Her description of the activity required to register a single letter is awe-inspiring. And strangely, our neurology adapts even though there is no immediate, practical benefit to this function. In Wolf’s words, “the act of reading embodies as no other function the brain’s semi-miraculous ability to go beyond its original, genetically programmed capacities such as vision and language.” Reading surpasses the basic senses required for survival. It is apparently unnecessary, and yet it has the power to entirely revolutionize an individual life.

But what does this science have to do with the discussion surrounding modern, digital culture? Wolf outlines three major concerns with the way digital media affects the malleable neurology of our reading brain. The first is the way in which it encourages our novelty bias. Already wired to give primary attention to new signals in our environment, a feature which protects us in the event of danger, it takes concentrated effort and time to teach the brain to focus on letters and words. However, the scrolling and constantly updating sound bytes of the internet split our attention. As Wolf describes it, “In multitasking, we unknowingly enter an addiction loop as the brain’s novelty centers becomes rewarded for processing shiny new stimuli, to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex, which wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention.” As we give into this rhythm of reading, we lose what she calls cognitive patience. Not only do we struggle to focus our attention on the page, but we fail to spend time with the content of our reading. The digitally-trained brain has a harder time pausing to digest the meaning and implications of what has been read. In this way, the highest purposes of reading, self-reflection and the pursuit of wisdom, are lost.

Her second concern addresses the substantive nature of the page. The physical dimension of print provides readers “a knowledge of where they are in time and space” and “allows them to return to things over and over again and learn from them.” She calls this the recursive dimension of reading. Screens do not have quite the same “thereness” as hard copy. The words disappear as we scroll, and we therefore lose the sense of their permanence. In early years the recursive dimension is especially important as children experience repeat encounters with a book. Wolf says, “It involves their whole bodies; they see, smell, hear, and feel books.”

Such repetition allows them to develop the quality which comprises her third concern: background knowledge. Human beings can only acquire insight by comparing new concepts with those they already know. Wolf recounts her attempt to read Ethiopian children a story about an octopus. They had never seen or heard of such a creature and could not comprehend the context in which the story took place. For modern children of the West, Wolf sees a similar problem: “That environment is providentially rich in what it gives, but paradoxically today, it may give too much and ask too little.”

When our world is oversaturated with knowledge, we often fail to grapple with information in a way that makes it ours. We prefer seeking new information to retaining the old. Whether it be an octopus, Achilles, or Ebenezer Scrooge, failure to stockpile cultural background knowledge impedes a reader’s ability to think analogically. Without analogy, a human being cannot formulate a new thought. And more than simply providing background information, reading gives us experiences. For those who have read the ending of Anna Karenina, Wolf claims, “In all likelihood the same neurons you deploy when you move your legs and trunk were also activated when you read that Anna jumped before the train.” Books truly do allow us to become a thousand men and yet remain ourselves, as C.S. Lewis argued long ago.

Wolf’s fears about the effects which these neurological changes will produce in humanity are no surprise. The loss of cognitive patience, the recursive dimension, and background knowledge are sure to diminish the quality of the reading experience, thereby severing future generations from humanity’s long heritage. She laments the loss of deep reading, which produces joy and wisdom responsible for carrying sufferers of all kinds through unspeakable tragedy. She worries for a narrow-minded society that fails to “welcome the Other as a guest within ourselves” through deep reading. As many before her, she cautions us against how easily we have given up slow, reflective reading.

Yet Wolf's optimism for the future is surprising and is what sets her work apart. Recognizing that it is unadvisable to leap unthinking into new technologies, but also futile (even undesirable) to escape our digital present, she imagines a third way forward. Building on research done on the bilingual brain, Wolf hypothesizes a similar binary approach to reading education. Just as a child may easily develop separate neural pathways for English and Spanish language processing, she believes we can develop separate pathways for print and digital reading. A good reader then becomes a “code switcher,” toggling between modes of “light” and “deep” reading as the situation demands. Furthermore, she expands these hypotheses to include not just the training of new readers, but the restoring of adult readers as well. Advances in neurology have shown us how the plasticity of the brain provides a way to reverse negative neural patterns. Wolf suggests that this is also possible for the reading brain.

Whether or not Wolf has landed on the answer, her hopeful outlook is a breath of fresh air. We have no lack of alarmists voicing the dangers of technology today. However, if we only remain alarmed, longing for days gone by, we will soon give way to isolation and despair. Wolf instead searches for a solution that will safeguard tradition while simultaneously embracing the benefits of our digital present. This willingness to thoughtfully occupy her own place in history is a timely example to all anxious readers. She looks forward in good faith to a development we have not yet reached. Thus Reader, Come Home successfully calls its audience into what Wolf proclaims as the goal of good reading: to know what we do not know.

Emily Andrews is an Associate Director at CenterForLit in Spokane, Washington, where she teaches, writes, podcasts, and develops teacher resources. She is an Associate Editor for FORMA.

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