Digital culture doesn’t have to make you a shallow reader. But you have to do something about it.
- Laura Miller
Illustration by Doris Liou.
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.
She’s not the first—either to notice this falling off or to sound the alarm at it. Her dilemma is the same one that prompted Nicholas Carr to write his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Whenever he tried to read anything substantial, Carr wrote, “I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. … The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” Reader, Come Home’s chapters are written in the form of letters—Wolf’s attempt to strike an intimate tone—but for all her adoration of literature, this is a writer who lives most of her professional life in the realm of academia and policymaking, an environment that has left its mark on her prose. Her sentences sometimes resemble a stand full of broken umbrellas through which the reader must forage in search of a workable statement: “Many changes in our thinking owe as much to our biological reflex to attend to novel stimuli as to a culture that floods us with continuous stimuli with our collusion.”
In her defense, unlike, say, her fellow neuroscience popularizer and Proust fan, the disgraced Jonah Lehrer—a pleasure to read if you don’t know about the plagiarism and fabrication—Wolf is a serious scholar genuinely trying to make the world a better place. Reader, Come Home is full of sound, if hardly revelatory, advice for parents—read to your small children instead of handing them an iPad with an “enhanced” e-book on it that can read itself aloud while you check your smartphone—and considered policy recommendations. A good third of the book concerns how educators can improve the deep-reading skills of children in various age groups while also promoting their digital literacy. Wolf’s goal, she insists, is not to bemoan the lost idylls of print reading, but to build “biliterate” brains in children who are “expert, flexible code-switchers,” with “parallel levels of fluency” in both the skimming, “grasshopper” style of reading fostered by digital media and the immersive, deep, reflective reading associated with print books. Wolf may wax lyrical on the subject of print, but she is no Luddite. One of her many projects is an initiative that distributes carefully designed digital teaching devices to “nonliterate children in remote parts of the world” where they have no books and no parents or other adults able to instruct them.
But if Wolf is impassioned about the importance of deep reading, she doesn’t always seem fully cognizant of the forces arrayed against it. She seems to be responding to the digital culture of nearly a decade ago, when parents still thought it was cutting-edge for schools to issue tablets to students, not the 2018 in which parents worry that their kids have become “addicted” to digital devices. She views online reading as if it mostly consists of news consumption, decrying the way the medium pressures writers to condense their work into snackable content and makes readers impatient with anything long and chewy. But “reading” doesn’t necessarily describe what many people are doing online anymore, whether they’re teenagers checking Instagram, seniors debating politics on Facebook, 10-year-olds playing video games, or toddlers being lulled into docility by robotically disturbing YouTube videos. Sure, we read Twitter and Facebook, but not in the way we read even so fragmented a text as a newspaper.
Maryanne Wolf. Photo by Rod Searcey.
As in Proust and the Squid, Wolf refers back to a famous story from Phaedrus, in which Socrates cautioned against literacy, arguing that knowledge is not fixed but the product of a dialogue between the speaker and listener—that the great weakness of a text is that you can’t ask it questions and make it justify its conclusions. Wolf uses the story to point out the futility of rejecting a powerful new communication technology like the book, but she doesn’t seem to have noticed that the internet more closely resembles Socrates’ ideal than the printed page does. Social media and comments sections are more like conversations than they are like books or print journalism. In her paeans to deep reading and its power to engender critical thinking, “wherein different possible interpretations of the text move back and forth, integrating background knowledge with empathy and inference with critical analysis,” Wolf argues that good readers learn to weigh their acquired knowledge against the text, testing it. But an internet in which serious ideas are presented and evaluated by writers and readers who debate them publicly and in good faith would be just as much a boon to critical thinking.
Or at least that was the promise, long ago, back when digital utopianism still had a leg to stand on, before even the people who have made fortunes selling us this stuff started going on digital detoxes and raising their kids tech-free. When Carr published the article on which The Shallows was based, he drew a lot of fire from technology boosters for his fuddy-duddy obsession with books. Why, Clay Shirky argued, couldn’t Carr recognize that the form of “literary reading” he lamented had had its day and was being replaced by something different but of even greater value because it is so much more democratic? The reason no one’s reading War and Peace is, Shirky asserted, because it’s “too long, and not so interesting.” Instead of mourning the loss of the “cathedral” reading experience offered by a great 19th-century novel, we should be adapting to the “bazaar” culture of the internet. If the medium trains our supremely adaptable brains to work differently, well, maybe that’s because they need to work that way to take advantage of “the net’s native forms.”
Shirky’s was only the sauciest form of an argument I heard whenever I mentioned to my techno-utopian friends that I identified with Carr’s distress. Concentration had become more difficult even for me, a professional reader and lifelong lover of books. Now it seems utterly nuts that someone could insist both that technology is an unstoppable force that cannot be directed or corrected and also that everything will work out great in the end, but that was standard operating procedure among the tech commentariat as recently as eight years ago. That large corporations might manipulate and exploit these changes for profit (let alone that hostile foreign governments might tamper with the much-vaunted “wisdom of crowds” to influence a U.S. election) never seemed to occur to them—or if it did, it didn’t bother them much. Freed from what Shirky deplored as the “impoverished access” of the past, we were, he assured us, poised for “the greatest expansion of expressive capability the world has ever known.” In the dark days of 2018, all of us are fully aware of what it’s like to be bombarded with the expanded expressive capability of the internet. Forget War and Peace—nothing could be as uninteresting as 99 percent of the stuff people post online. The medium remains the message, and in the case of the wide-open internet, that means the medium is ever more cacophonous and indiscriminate, its democratic qualities as much a bug as a feature. One of the reasons that digital readers skim is not because of some quality inherent in screens, as Wolf seems to think, but because so much of what we find online is not worth our full attention.
Photo from Harper.
In Reader, Come Home, Wolf arrives bearing a bit more evidence in defense of deep reading, and specifically the reading of fiction, which some researchers have found to increase empathy. The reader of a novel imagines herself into the psyche of a person who may be very different from herself, and this offers a qualitatively different experience from watching a visual, dramatic medium like film, where she witnesses the character’s experience from the outside. But there isn’t a lot of this research, partly because experiments involving an activity as complex and idiosyncratic as reading are hard to devise. Most of us, like Wolf, will have to resort to more ad hoc investigations. Wolf, struggling through Magister Ludi, found that she did eventually get her groove back, falling into the rhythms of Hesse’s prose. This made her feel that she was “home again,” hence the title of her book.
Reading about Wolf’s experiment reminded me of the weekend last year when I sunk into the velvet folds of Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, a novel that is not at all slow but rather slowing. It demonstrated an uncanny power to still my jittering mind and return me to the long, trancelike reading bouts of my early 20s, when I devoured fat Henry James novels for fun. How much more satisfying this was than the facile and addictive consumption of social media that takes up way too much of my time! I went looking on my shelves for a copy of Egan’s novel, wondering if I could find on a randomly accessed page some trace of that magic. Finally I remembered that I’d read Manhattan Beach in PDF form, on my iPad. The screen didn’t lessen the potency of the novel’s spell. It would be nice if Wolf caught up with the times and stopped fretting about e-books and the notion that they inhibit this kind of immersion.
Perhaps the answer to Wolf’s worries is neither so complicated nor so apocalyptic as technology’s champions and Cassandras have made it out to be, but largely a matter of willpower and common sense. Most adults do know what’s good for them. Like hitting the gym instead of the couch or having the salade niçoise instead of fries, you pick the less tempting option because in the long run it will make you feel better. As the programmers put it, garbage in, garbage out.
This article was originally published on August 16, 2018, by Slate, and is republished here with permission.