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.

The Music of a Language

I have the excellent good fortune to teach English in a department of English and Modern Languages.  This means the hall where we live is filled with people who are bilingual and multilingual. It means we have majors in Spanish as well as English, and minors, certificates, and courses in several other languages. It means I hear different languages daily, some of which I can pick out words and follow conversations, and some of which I know next to nothing and can only hear the music. This post is about why that is valuable.
Recently I had a discussion about the sounds of different languages.  You know the stereotypes—Romance languages sound lovely, but Germanic sound harsh, like you’re being yelled at. In fact, it was sparked by this meme:
In some ways that’s not wrong—languages that have a preponderance of words that end in vowels, like Italian or Spanish, sound like the words run together more fluidly, since the vowel of the last word joins to the consonant in the next word just like the syllables do in a single word. This makes the words flow together in a way that the consonant-heavy Germanic languages can’t achieve. In German or English, words more often end in consonants, which means you have to stop the flow of air more often. It sounds like you pause on purpose after each word so you can pronounce them all, and also to differentiate between words. It means you get more of a staccato, shotgun sound as you utter the sentence.
Compare, for instance, part of a line from Dante’s Purgatorio : “Lo sommo er’ alto che vincea la vista…” (Purg. 4.40)–where every word ends in a vowel except the one that’s been abbreviated for the sole purpose of keeping the musical vowel-consonant alteration–with a line from Rilke’s “Evening”: Der Abend wechselt langsam die Gewӓnder,” where the only word that doesn’t end with consonants is an article (‘the’).  Americans tend to view the Italian as more musical and the German as more aggressive, just on the basis of whether there are more vowels or consonants.
Imagine our dismay, then, when we think about English—that glorious bastard tongue of “German spoken with a French accent,” as one of my French professors used to say.  Is it German?  Is it Romance? (English has a whole lot of Latin borrowing as well, and American English is busy borrowing from Spanish as we speak.) So which is it? Both?
The difference for me is not that one is more beautiful than another. (I have heard people be very seductive and debonair in German.) It’s more that they are both musical until we know what they say.  When we have no clue, we can focus on the sound—the lilt of Romance or the rhythm of Germanic. As Jorge Luis Borges says in his gorgeous essay on his blindness, when you don’t know a language, “each word [is] a kind of talisman that [you] unearth.” Each word rings with strangeness and music, and comes out more a chant than a sentence.
This is a reason to study another language. In addition to making you more cosmopolitan, introducing you to other cultures and gaining a better understanding of your own language’s grammar, you get to experience that music. You get to enjoy the process of turning that music in to meaning. Because that’s the problem with listening to a language you already know, particularly natively:  you are so busy making it mean something, you forget to listen to how beautifully it sings.

Beginning Bibliotherapy

Confession:  Last week was horrible.
I don’t really have the energy to blog.  But I thought maybe I could share some books that cheer me up.  You know, a top ten list of my Bibliotherapy favorites?  Here’s what I’ve got.
1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  Kids’ books count, y’all, and this one is an absolute delight. Part allegory, part quest, part punster’s dream, this book never fails to make me laugh.  I found it as an adult, actually, reading it to my kids.  But now I recommend it to everyone I can. Like you!  Enjoy.
2. Julio Cortázar’s Blow-Up and Other Stories.  Even though some of these have a dark edge to them, many of them are so surreal that I find myself able to dissociate their tragedy from mine, which is a step to looking more clinically at my own problems and sorting them out.  I particularly recommend “Axolotl,” “The Night Face-Up,” and “Letter to a Young Lady from Paris.”  You won’t regret it.
3. Fairy Tales.  Most will do, but here I’ll recommend a lovely collection of Baba Yaga tales; nothing makes you feel back on your game like overcoming a witch, over and over again.  Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales translated by Sibelan Forrester.
4. Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  These are searing, beautifully written letters, that I discovered in college when I needed them most.  I still return to them, and they never fail to soothe.
5. Poetry by John Keats or W.B Yeats.  Not just because their names visually rhyme.  Because their speak of beauty like a friend, and to read them is to feel connected to that transcendence.
Ok.  5, not 10.  But it’s a start.  Spenser only wrote half of the Faerie Queene too.
But what would you add?  Do you have a book you recommend to make people feel better? Bibliotherapy is becoming a thing, you know, and we need to be ready with our prescriptions.