Reading · Uncategorized

The Meta Blog, or How Reading About Reading Is Making Me a Better Reader

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.
Living · Picture Books · Reading

Raising Readers

Summer is birthday season when you’ve planned kids on an academic calendar. This summer my “baby” turns 15, which is a kind of weird, arbitrary-sounding milestone (for a non-Latino family), but for this literacy-minded mama, it matters. It turns out that as children learn to read, it helps their fluency and vocabulary-building to read to them aloud. The benefits last at least until they are fifteen, when their visual vocabulary catches up with their aural vocabulary.
Kids understand more of what they hear than what they read on their own until they are fifteen. (I think I first got this number from Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook, but I’m having trouble putting my finger on the reference just now.) The number, though, stuck in my head for years, and it makes sense to me that kids’ aural vocabulary (what they hear read in context, one presumes especially from a reader who reads with fluency and drama, so that the sense of new words can be gleaned from the context) is greater than their visual vocabulary (what they read by themselves) until they are fifteen years old.
So until 15, parents have a real, practical reason for continuing storytime.  I didn’t make this felicitous date with the little one, incidentally.  Regular storytime pretty much ended when she started high school and felt herself burdened with homework nearly every night.  (I’m not indulging my curiosity about how her homework load was so much more burdensome than her brother’s just two years before… with the same teachers and same assignments….  He had plenty of time for our evening reading, which means we kept going until he was 16 and she was 14.)
At any rate, now I don’t have to feel guilty any longer.  I didn’t really feel guilty. She’s ten times the reader I was at her age, and my goal was always to hook them on reading, not just hit an important date. Mission accomplished on both counts. They both read a considerable amount for pleasure, even in the age of video games, and since her eleventh birthday, my daughter has asked primarily for books for her birthday. I call that a win.
It’s her birthday coming up, so her reading journey I’m interested in tracking here.

In the picture book days, we read around an hour a day to her.  She loved Where’s My Teddy by Jez Alborough, which we had in an oversized board book format, perfect for propping on laps and reading together. It’s adorable, so I never minded reading it four times in a row. (One fear I always had was that they’d love something I hated, and I’d have to suffer through the same drivel a hundred times.  Reader, beware of this—read books before you introduce them to wee ones, who thrive on repetition.) When she learned to read (and she was well in to first grade), we scaled back to a conservative 45 minutes a night, and there we stayed, nearly without exception, until last summer.

Scholastic Book Club became my best friend. They have so many economical books, and you contribute to the teacher’s library too–everyone wins. She plowed through Daisy Meadows’s fairy books and Holub and Williams’s Goddess Girls series on her own, while we read a bit above her level at home—Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Peter and the Starcatchers. We also made a point to read things she might struggle with on her own—British books like The Wind in the Willows, The House at Pooh Corner, The Hobbit, and classics like Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and A Tale of Two Cities.  For some of these, she benefitted from having a mom who taught those books, but far more of them, we discovered together. I wouldn’t have traded this time for anything in the world.  

And as she advances through high school and in to adulthood, requesting Barnes and Noble giftcards for holiday gifts and brandishing tee shirts with the Ravenclaw crest or slogans like “The Book Was Better,” I take some consolation for the loss of storytime.