Reader, Come Home - the Reading Brain in a Digital World

Maryanne Wolf
Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf

Maryanne Wolf’s recently-published Reader, Come Home would have had less authority for me had I not read her Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain for she demonstrates in that a mastery of her field that lends gravitas to this new volume.

Both volumes do more than just nod to each other. Their pointing fingers, almost touching like Michelango’s Creation of Adam, ignite a spark in the gap between them. Where Proust explored the cognitive dimensions of Socrates’ exclusively oral tradition being over-run by the written word espoused by Plato, then used by Aristotle, Reader, Come Home turns the spotlight on the impact upon human cognition of on-screen, digital reading. Although Wolf is first and foremost a cognitive neuroscientist with a special interest in reading and literacy, the book embraces philosophy, social science and even politics. For someone who believes that better readers make for better voters, I find the book’s argument compelling on a number of levels.

Wolf’s chapters are letters to us, the reader, rather than traditional discourses. Otherwise, the arguments advance in a familiar fashion, buttressed by references to current research set out in page-indexed notes gathered at the back.

Her principle contention is that our attention in reading is the basis for the quality of our thinking and that our technologies change who we are as individuals and who we are with one another. Digital scrolling introduces spatial instability which makes it hard for young readers to remember where they are both on the screen and in the story. Eye-movement research, especially by Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger, suggests that screen reading encourages skimming, skipping and browsing, with the measured result that sequencing of events and memory for detail are the first casualties of digital reading. There appears to be a measured collapse of our working memory and concentration spans when we read text on screen. There seems to be a flattening of language, of reading and of thought. The human brain has an inbuilt novelty bias which favours visual attention being given to detail-change in our field of view and this tends to make us fall prey to hyperlinks and on-screen distractions. A long-term habit of screen-reading — which most of us do daily — risks slackening the use of our individual analytic powers to the point that, across our culture in general, complex ideas are no longer the dominant currency. The danger exists for young and old alike.

One could suspect that the author harbours Luddite tendencies and is an unbending traditionalist, but I don’t see this, not least because she eventually launches what is effectively a manifesto in which the teaching of screen-reading is cradled developmentally alongside traditional reading. But also because she puts herself under the microscope, albeit informally, by setting out to re-read Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, one of her favourite books from her reading youth, but encounters major problems. Initially she could not read the book that she had once adored. She found that she had become habituated to read on the surface and at speed. During her own on-screen professional and personal time she had unlearned how to accomplish deep-reading in a traditional novel format; she had acquired velocity at the expense of depth. She eventually completed the re-read but it took her a shocking two weeks. On her third attempt, she had recaptured the joy she had first felt, many years before she became a reading researcher. I can’t be alone in similarly experiencing these problems.

It may also be that digital screens are not the only player in this slackening of our intellectual rigour. TV and streaming services have been diverting us away from text for years — and there is a rich evidence basis for the role that this has already played. Digital reading is a relatively new player and the author is sounding a passionate alarm.

Although there are apparently more connections in a cubic centimetre of human brain tissue than there are stars in the Milky Way, the average person consumes about 34 gigabytes of data across various devices each day. (Both observations are anchored to research in the book’s footnotes.) That’s the equivalent of 100,000 words a day. “Our attention is being chopped into shorter intervals and that is probably not good for thinking deeper thoughts”, the author of the latter study observes. So the 34 gigabytes is a series of short, spasmodic bursts of reading activity which are far from sustained, continuous or concentrated. The author contends that this style of reading — necessary for professional survival — had temporarily damaged her ability to read in the way she had intuitively practised before screens became pervasive. If this had happened to her, what might be the effect upon children now learning to read who had never known life without screens?

Much of this concern stems from the author’s insight into the data. In the US, the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report card documents that two-thirds of all fourth graders (9-10 year olds) do not read at a “proficient level”, meaning without fluency and with inadequate comprehension. The fourth grade in the US system is what the author calls the Maginot Line. Before it, emphasis is upon reading. After it, it is assumed that you can read so time and resources are not allocated to literacy beyond that point. Worse, nearly 50% of African-American and Latino children can’t manage reading at a basic level at grade four, the same age. They don’t decode sufficiently to understand what they are reading. She refers to this as the vanishing hole in American education. To drive the point home, the American Bureau of Prisons in many of the states across the US will base their plans for prison inmate bed numbers on the trends in third or fourth grade reading statistics.

This justifies a call to action — and America may not be alone in this. Many factors play a part in these shocking statistics and digital reading is not the only one. What is clear is that digital reading alone won’t fix the problem. One can’t just leave young children to play with their parent’s tablet. In the final three chapters of the book, Wolf sets out a sort of blueprint for literacy that leads to deep reading, but it doesn’t exclude screen reading. She would like it to begin with pre-speech infants sitting on a parent’s lap seeing and hearing their parent read, developing an appreciation that language can be encoded on the page and then decoded into speech which conveys and transmits thought and meaning. The role of parents, as ever, is key. The author is also an advocate of children learning to code. Bravo. With the right approach, it can be a wonderful — and fun — way to explore logic and strengthen hypothetical whatifery.

Research also suggests that we are putting children in harm’s way exposing them at too early an age to tablets and smartphones. They can become clinically addictive, especially for teenagers, even for adults, as we know. The obsessive hold that digital devices have can often manifest itself in the clinical diagnosis of attention-deficit disorders. Such children become unable to focus their attention on one task because they can’t stop paying attention to all the other tasks.

There is an established body of work on task and attention switching, in adults as well as children. A positive note is struck by seeing that individuals who have already acquired one strong skill can usually manage to switch tasks with loss of attention. This leads Wolf to argue that the development of traditional reading skills should be secured before gradually introducing youngsters to on-screen reading. Getting the two sets of skills in place, without detriment to either, would help develop what she calls the bi-literate brain.

There are some wonderful asides that the author scatters throughout the book. Bilingual speakers appear to be better able to understand the perspective of others than ‘mono-lingual’ speakers. Mmm, why not? Learning handwriting early makes better writers and thinkers; the sensori-motor feedback strengthens language processing, not unlike the way in which people are faster with numbers if they have learned to use an abacus from an early age. A significant proportion of people who share an article on-screen click the share icon during the article’s first or second paragraph — but then never finish the article themselves. Graduate student essay citations too often refer to an article or book’s opening and closing text sections, rarely anything deeper within the text. Our tendency towards the superficial — away from the deep — is a hallmark of our times.

And, gloriously, we discover that Wolf was a graduate student of Noam and Carol Chomsky. Respect!

The book came out this year, 2018. There are frequent subtle and not so subtle references to the way in which we need to hone our analytical faculties if we wish to not fall prey to demagoguery. The lack of deep reading experience and critical thought renders one prey to “unadjudicated information, whether fake news or complete fabrications.” Our grasshopper reading habits also make us fall prey to “bait-and-switch” rhetoric. Democracy depends upon its citizenry being on guard and deep reading plays its part in this, not just by way of what we learn but also for the way in which that process sharpens our thinking.

I have done disservice to this book because it is written not just with academic authority but with passion. References and learning abound, but the author’s humanity is steadfast throughout. As an ex-teacher of reading and language, I can identify with the book’s abundant detail. As a voter, I can identify with the larger argument that she is making. Developing critical reading and thinking skills makes for a stronger democracy. In the age of Trump, we can’t allow ourselves to be trumped by shallow rhetoric. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.

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