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Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf

Stephen A. Migotsky

Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf. New York: HarperCollins, 2018, 260 pages, $24.99.

In two dystopian novels, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley[1] and 1984 by George Orwell,[2] people don’t read books. In 1984, books are censored and banned by a totalitarian government in order to control what people think. In Brave New World books are available, but no one wants to read them, because they are all too happy in a world of groupthink. More recent books, such as iGen, Proust and the Squid, The Shallows, The Digital Divide,[3] have suggested a third reason people might not read books. It’s not that books are banned as in 1984, or people are too happy without books to want to read them as in Brave New World; now the suggestion is that most people don’t have the ability to read the way people used to read. Now people have brains that are disabled and can no longer read big, important books in a deep, thoughtful way.

That is a stunning fact. The result in study after study is that the hours that we spend looking at a screen change how our brain works. There is a difference even when one reads the text of a novel on a Kindle instead of on a printed page (77). What inspired Professor Wolf to begin to research and write this book was her experience after writing Proust and the Squid, which was published in 2007. She describes her experience as a Rip Van Winkle one. For seven years she did research for Proust and the Squid. When she woke up from that book, “our entire literacy-based culture had begun its transformation into a very different, digitally based culture. I was gobsmacked” (6).

The book is written as nine letters to the reader from someone who in her own words “became consumed with how the circuitry of the reading brain would be altered by the unique characteristics of the digital medium, particularly the young” (7).

Letter One describes her Rip Van Winkle experience in depth as someone who used to read deeply and has researched the brain’s activity while reading. Letter Two is an overview of current knowledge of the reading brain. Letter Three describes “the essential processes that compose deep reading—from the reader’s empathic and inferential abilities to critical analysis and insight itself” (11). These first three chapters give the foundation for Letter Four, which argues that “how and what we now read” in digital media changes our ability to do “critical analysis of complex realities” (11–12, emphasis hers). This is a crucial chapter.

In the Letters Five to Eight, Professor Wolf writes of her concerns for the loss of reading’s role in the development of “intellectual, social-emotional, and ethical” traits in children (12). She has a novel solution to the print vs. digital reading dilemma. She proposes and hopes that readers can be taught to read print and digital media as if they were two different languages and readers would become bilingual and able to switch between the two media with each having its own “language” without losing any of the benefits of either “language” (12). She calls this her hope for a “biliterate” reading brain (12). This hope is merely a hope.

In her last chapter, Letter Nine, she asks us to ask ourselves if we have “the three lives of the good reader” akin to Aristotle’s three lives of a good community—“the life of knowledge and productivity, the life of entertainment and . . . leisure, and finally life of contemplation” (13). The life of contemplation is “daily threatened in our culture” (13).

She notes that Professors of English know firsthand the condition of their students’ reading and writing skills. Their most frequent observations are two. First, students are becoming increasingly impatient with the difficulty and time it takes to understand long and complex sentences, and they don’t like to respond deeply and thoughtfully to a book (92). This reality is so common that students have an abbreviation for their experience with some books—TL;DR (Too long; didn’t read) (92). A second observation is that student writing is deteriorating (92).

Consider giving yourself this test that she gave herself. Professor Wolf picked a big, dense book that was a favorite novel that she had read when she was younger. The test was to reread it now. She believed that her reading style had not changed in the intervening years, because she thought that only the time she had available to read was changed (98–99). She happily chose one of her favorite books and began to read it, and she “experienced the literary equivalent of a punch to the cortex. I could not read it” (99). Without her knowing it, her brain had changed. She could not read it!

If she—a professor, a researcher, a smart person—lost the ability to read a favorite book, because her brain changed, then what has been slowly happening to the rest of us who also read digital media, perhaps, even more than she did? Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). When your brain is unable to read deeply and meditate deeply on the Holy Scriptures, how is a pastor or any Christian going to be transformed and be able to test and fathom the deep things of God? Even one of those who create much of the digital media worries about the damage that is done by them. “Google CEO Eric Schmidt cautioned, ‘I worry that the level of interruption, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information . . . is in fact altering cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking’” (123–24). The deep reading brain is in danger. This book explains how your brain responds to what you read and how you read.

The good news for Professor Wolf, and for us, is that she overcame her reading disability by forcing herself to read her test book in twenty-minute intervals, and she regained her deep reading ability after two weeks of concentrated training (101).

Endnotes

[1] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Modern Library, 1946).

[2] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949).

[3] Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (New York: Atria, 2017); Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper Collins, 2007); Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010); Mark Bauerlein, ed., The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2011).

Stephen A. Migotsky is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and serves as the pastor of Jaffrey Presbyterian Church in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, January 2019.

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