So this is a “Reading About Reading” sort of musing. I’ve recently read Maryanne Wolf’s marvelous new book, Reader, Come Home, which is part Neuroscientist Explaining For Lay Persons How Reading on the Internet is Changing Our Brains, and part Clever Plan to Evolve Purposefully in the Face of a New Shift in Text and Literacy.
I’ll say a bit about this book, a bit about where I’m going from here, and then offer a reading list I’ve given myself and would love to talk about with similarly interested humans.
Reader, Come Homeis a written as a set of letters, a real, old-fashioned epistolary book, evocative of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. It is also a series of love letters to the genre of the novel, which she worries may be in danger. But mostly in this book, the author explains the science of reading.
In a brilliant metaphor of the circus, Wolf illustrates the multiple centers of the brain involved in reading, and shows how they represent an adaptation of using multiple centers in quick succession and simultaneously. Reading involves the “circus rings” of the Vision, Language, and Cognition centers in the brain, but also Motor Functions and the Affective center. Suddenly those memes about your brain on television (barely any activity) vs. your brain on books (huge chunks of your brain lighting up) become clear. It takes a lot of work to read, especially to read deeply.
This is enough, frankly, to set my mind whirring for days, but thankfully she’s got a trajectory that kept me moving forward. She’s discovered that our reading patterns have shifted in response to all those hours skimming news on the Internet, zipping from article to vine to clickbait, and that while we are capable of reading much more, we are losing our ability to read deeply.
Reading deeply (she shows a serious predilection for novels that this medievalist finds limited, but forgivable) has been linked to increased empathy, to stress reduction, to critical thinking, and even to happiness, but our ability to sustain deep reading is waning. Even people who have been excellent deep readers are becoming less so in the onslaught of internet reading.
But she offers some hope, too. She advocates training up the next generation as “bi-literate” by which she means able to switch modes given the medium. Little children should be read to from print picture books, and in school they should learn how to use and manage electronic texts, while continuing to develop a relationship with print. (There are lots of reasons to love print, but I think that’s for a different blog.) In this way we can grow readers who navigate the internet without losing their ability to read deeply, for there are simply too many benefits to being able to read deeply.
You can imagine, for a person who writes a blog on reading, that this book has been a bit of a head cannon. I am puzzled by the idea that we’re not able to read deeply, given the publishing world’s continued success, and my English majors’ habits, but maybe we’re reading “lighter” fare? (Maybe not. I need to be convinced of this. Someone quick—do a study for me.) I am comforted, too, by her findings on children reading print books, as someone whose very favorite moments of child-rearing involved storytime. And I find comfort as a literature professor who aims every year to get more young people intoxicated by the stories of the Middle Ages.
Science now says we need to read. And we need to give it our full attention.
So, naturally, I’ve started another list of books to read in my copious spare time:The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene
A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
Why Read? By Mark Edmundson
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.
Apparently I’m not alone in my interest here. But before I get to these, I have a mystery novel I’ve been putting off for too long. Happy reading, y’all.