Reader, Come Home, The Reading Brain in a Digital World

Reader, Come Home is Maryanne Wolf’s sequel to her ground breaking Proust and the Squid written a decade earlier. She admits that during the seven years she was writing the former book, the world of literacy changed, having begun a transformation into a digitally based culture (p. 6). Even she unknowingly adapted to this change and had to take radical action to reverse course (pp. 97-102). The conclusion, drawn from an expert on the reading brain, is “What we read, how we read, and why we read change how we think, changes that are continuing now at a faster pace” (p. 2). Digital reading is threatening the life of contemplation (pp. 11-13) and endangering deep-reading (p. 38), as we read in mediums that demand less attention (pp. 58-61). Wolf is worried that many things will be lost if we lose our “cognitive patience” to enter the world of books (pp. 46, 52-53, 93). “Our young will not know what they do not know” (p. 46, cf. pp. 56, 75, 201-202).

Deep reading, defined as “the power to examine and potentially debunk personal beliefs and conviction” (p. 63, cf. pp 62-64), is essential for critical analysis. When we lack critical analysis, we are basically allowing others to think for us (pp. 199, 205), and we become easy targets for manipulation (see fn. p. 246). Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, is quoted as saying, “I worry that the level of interpretation, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information…is in fact altering cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking” (p. 121). We are at a historical hinge moment (p. 198), and good readers serve as both canaries and guardians of our common humanity (p. 202).

Concerned that multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop (p. 110, cf. p. 112) and online “grasshopper minds” (p. 115), Wolf is nevertheless not ready to throw in the towel even though in the last ten years, we have changed how much we read (pp. 72-76) and how we read, and skimming is the new normal, and our attention span is shrinking (pp. 76-82) because of what we read (pp. 87-92). Nevertheless, all is not lost. We can revive the “quiet eye” of slowing down for the purpose of contemplation (pp. 69-72) and learn the art of “hurry up slowly” (Festina Lente, pp. 193-194) for the same purpose. Toward this end, the author personally prints hardcopies of internet material and writes in long hand, which encourages thinking (p. 173). Wolf also offers detail suggestions for teaching children (ages 0-5) to read books, rather than on screens, including reading physical books to them (pp. 128-149). And since development of the reading brain is essential in children, she provides excellent ideas for children up to age ten (pp. 154-167. 170-179).

The author does not recommend an either-or approach, but rather calls for developing a biliterate reading brain—steeped in the best medium, each having its own rules (pp. 170-179, 186).

Wolf articulates clearly the aim of her book, which I quote at length:

At stake here is the ultimate message of this book: that any version of the digital chain hypothesis, strong or weak, poses threats to the use of our most reflective capacities if we remain unaware of this potential, with profound implications for the future of a democratic society. The atrophy and gradual disuse of our analytical and reflective capacities as individuals are the worst enemies of a truly democratic society, for whatever reason, in whatever medium, in whatever age.

Twenty years ago Martha Nussbaum wrote about the susceptibility and the decision making of citizens who have ceded their thinking to others: It would be catastrophic to become a nation of technically competent people who have lost the ability to think critically, to examine themselves, and to respect the humanity and diversity of others (pp. 198-199).

Wolf wraps ups her book by expressing three concerns (pp. 203-204):

  • That “the very plasticity of a reading brain that reflects the characteristics of digital media precipitate the atrophy of our most essential thought processes—critical analysis, empathy, and reflection—to the detriment of our democratic society.”
  • That the formation of these same processes might be threatening to our young.
  • That we are creating new tools and technologies to acquire “more knowledge more quickly and ignore the growing gaps between the information we read and the analysis and reflection we apply to it.” This last concern is summarized well in a quote from T.S. Eliot: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (p. 192)

Reader, Come Home is leading the list of books warning us of the dangers of our digital world, yet providing hope and mapping a way forward, if we will pay attention.

by Maryanne Wolf (New York, NY: Harper, 2018), 260 pp., paper $15.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel