the reading brain in a digital world

By Maryanne Wolf

Reviewed by John Cowan

Reader, Come Home is a crowded book. Crowded with information, knowledge, and reflection. It is a warning to a sleeping society. It is a call to arms. It is a vision of hope.

The thesis is that the brain, which was changed centuries ago through learning to read the printed page; with new abilities to reflect, compare, analyze, absorb, and reject, is being seduced into the sleep of the digital age, which favors sliding from content to new content barely absorbing what it barely observes on its passage from one data point to another. More and more the brain is becoming the helpless recipient for the next idea that comes along, and then the one after that. “Swift” is the objective, not “Deep.”

The material cause of this re-forming is that the brain is malleable. “Plasticity” is the commonly used descriptor. As it works, it adjusts itself to better perform the work it is working. If the internet is its object then it will shape itself to fit working on this object. Much of the internet asks nothing of the brain but agreement.  It does not even require a store of past knowledge.  Don’t know it, google it. No need to waste time thinking, the next piece of data waits for you to point and click. 

A book, if you do not skim it at internet speeds, brings you to making progress slowly. (Very old proverb: Fistina lente! Make haste slowly.) It allows the brain time to wander into your past, into your readings, into the classes you took, the lectures you heard, into your conversations and compare and contrast and think and judge.  

The author is fair. Although her clear personal preference is for the book and not the screen, Maryann recognizes the enormous good that the cornucopia of the internet provides, and respects the need for the brain to develop the tools to feast at that table, but her well-grounded in fact fear is that the book and its impact on the brain will be in the past. Her intent in Reader, Come Home is to maintain a balance. 

This defense carries her into the field of reading in which she is an international expert. Voluminous pages of knowledge on how to teach reading particularly to the young. Read this and you will be wiser on perhaps the most critical problem of our age. Even being just a little knowledgeable will put you ahead of most people and helps the universe. 

Did you know that reading books to pre-verbal children while holding them on your lap gives them a head start even if they cannot understand the words or the story? If so, your children are fortunate. And maybe your grandchildren will be also.

Did you know that Hemingway once won a bet that he could not write a six word novel. He did. It was: 

For sale: baby shoes; never worn.

That was a punch to my gut. I immediately, indeed instantly, invented the back story.  Did a picture of the unworn shoes rise in you? Or did you move too quickly to realize they are filling the living room? 

Dad placed the ad. Mom, could not have, she is in the other room, on the couch, bath robed in three days of mourning. He was silent at the computer, framing the words grimly, a young man, 28 years old, eyes red with the last day’s tears. Eight months of joy, baby showers, teasing, envy, expectation and now this, nothing. The expected child is not here. The child, unknown but loved, and missing. And nothing will be the same. He begins, “For sale…” No intent to be clever.  Just say it and get this last memento of tragedy out of the house.

That’s what happens when I read fiction. I am participant in someone else’s life. Do you have that privilege also? With the bundles of learning that come with it? And when I read non-fiction I am a participant in the thinking of some person. Agreeing with, augmenting, or quarrelling with their thoughts. Comparing them to others.

Let’s make sure the babies now being born have these experiences too. That the young people in our schools learn to create meaning out of mystery. That we do not lose the capacity we once had to understand and challenge the difficult. Reader, Come Home will provide you a background for effective conversation and action in a new and desperate enterprise: Saving the reading brain in a digital world. 

Who knows?  One of the brains  you save may be your own!