A New Way of Reading

I knew I had to read this book when I heard Doug Lemov endorsing it. Reader, Come Home sells itself as a portrayal of the reading state of the nation. It is really about the state of humanity.

The author points out that the Ancient Greeks were concerned that rising literacy would fundamentally change people’s ability to remember, and that they weren’t wrong: the rise of reading did change the way our brains worked, making memory weaker, and remarkably rapidly. So today, with the rise in digital devices, both the way we read and the way our minds work has shifted. But are we worried about the right things this time? Our fears seem centred around the fact that more children (and adults, truth be told) are not reading… But they are.

In fact, we are reading more than ever before: the author quotes studies that reveal we are reading around 100,000 words a day now. That’s a short novel, every single day. But what should be cause for celebration is in fact cause for concern, because the way we are reading is so dramatically different.

Wolf quotes a memorable speech by Barack Obama where he said that information has become ‘entertainment rather than empowerment.’ Moreover, our reading is ‘chopblock,’ not continuous, and situated within a technological world where ‘cognitive overload’ is ubiquitous. To take in all this information, ‘skimming’ has become ‘the new normal.’ We focus on the surface rather than digging deeper. And this has a profound impact on the way we process information.

I have often felt I read too much fiction; indeed, my aim this year was explicitly to read more non-fiction. That was before Wolf articulated to me (and I do feel this is personal, as she writes the book explicitly as letters to the reader) the benefits of fiction. For Wolf, we understand others and can show compassion and empathy through reading. Reading connects divergent cultures, so we have a more in-depth understanding of those different to us.

But this only happens when we read with ‘close attention.’ This kind of deep reading requires ‘analogical reasoning’ and ‘inference’ to uncover its many layers. In praise of beautiful prose, Wolf reminds us that beauty in words holds our attention so we focus on what lies deeper.

Yet in the modern world, the prevalence of digital devices results in ‘continuous partial attention’: we live in a ‘world of distraction’. This is not conducive to deep thinking. As well as cycling through the argument, familiar to readers of Lemov and Murphy and Willingham, that knowledge is crucial for deep reading, and that critical thought ‘never just happens,’ the author goes on to explore the impact on children of this way of processing words.

Boredom in children is normal. But ‘post-digital’ boredom is a different kind altogether. Wolf says that this kind of boredom, rather than provoking creativity as the former can, ‘de-animates’ children. The constant stimulation of the screen prevents them from experiencing true, tranquil tedium.

We know from our own adult lived experience how addictive devices are; studies abound to support this, but are barely needed. Of course children are much more vulnerable to this. And when they are developing their cognitive abilities, this has a devastating impact. The multiple stimulants on devices split children’s attention, and studies show that texts read on devices compared with traditional paper lead to weaker comprehension even if no other applications are running. The mere expectation that the device will have multiple purposes diverts their attention, ability to focus, and thus weakens their ability to understand what they are reading.

Moreover, the information overload of our reading society makes it much harder for children to build background knowledge. With so much information and so little time to process it, this threatens the development of children’s attentions and working memories.

There is so much more in this book, and I would urge everyone human to read it. It urged me to reflect on how I feel when I read a novel compared with how I feel when I read Buzzfeed. The guilt I used to feel for losing myself in a novel will be banished from my life. Instead, it will be my phone that I must lock away; my laptop I must periodically lose. Fiction is vital.

Wolf asks: ‘What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different?… It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.’ Far from an optional extra, deep reading is the stuff of life itself.

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