Excerpted from the book READER, COME HOME by Maryanne Wolf. Copyright © 2018 by Maryanne Wolf. Republished with permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Slate: “Just Read the Book Already” — “Not long ago, a cognitive neuroscientist decided to perform an experiment on herself. Maryanne Wolf, an expert on the science of reading, was worried—as perhaps you have worried—that she might be losing the knack for sustained, deep reading. She still bought books, she writes in ‘Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World,’ ‘but more and more I read in them rather than being whisked away by them. At some time impossible to pinpoint, I had begun to read more to be informed than to be immersed, much less to be transported.’ Despite having written a popular book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, celebrating, among other things, the brain’s neuroplasticity—that is, its tendency to reshape its circuitry to adapt to the tasks most often demanded of it—Wolf told herself that it wasn’t the style of her reading that had changed, only the amount of time she could set aside for it. Nevertheless, she felt she owed the question more rigorous scrutiny. Hence the informal experiment.
“Wolf resolved to allot a set period every day to reread a novel she had loved as a young woman, Hermann Hesse’s ‘Magister Ludi.’ It was exactly the sort of demanding text she’d once reveled in. But now she discovered to her dismay that she could not bear it. ‘I hated the book,’ she writes. ‘I hated the whole so-called experiment.’ She had to force herself to wrangle the novel’s ‘unnecessarily difficult words and sentences whose snakelike constructions obfuscated, rather than illuminated, meaning for me.’ The narrative action struck her as intolerably slow. She had, she concluded, ‘changed in ways I would never have predicted. I now read on the surface and very quickly; in fact, I read too fast to comprehend deeper levels, which forced me constantly to go back and reread the same sentence over and over with increasing frustration.’ She had lost the ‘cognitive patience’ that once sustained her in reading such books. She blamed the internet.”
Has this happened to you? Pick up a favorite book, but you can’t finish it. Your mind wanders. Sentences seem long. Boring. Eventually you toss the real book, and instead, check Facebook. Are we losing our ability to read deeply? To be quiet and contemplative, empathetic and critical thinkers. Literacy researcher Maryanne Wolf worries about it. But she’s not a digital luddite. No call to hurl iPads out the window here. Instead, she’s got a new plan to teach us — and especially kids — how to read in an information-saturated world.
This hour, On Point: the reading brain in a digital world.
— Meghna Chakrabarti