“Unlike in the past, we possess both the science and the technology to identify potential changes in how we read—and thus how we think—before such changes are fully entrenched in the population and accepted without our comprehension of the consequences.”
I was introduced to the work of Maryanne Wolf in grad school, in a course about multimedia literacies that examined perspectives on information literacy in an evolving technological landscape that requires new readers to acquire multiple skill sets. I read Proust and the Squid in 2012, five years after its initial publication, but by then Wolf was already deep at work on this new venture, examining how the principles she laid out in her first book had begun to shift in the evolving digital landscape, where babies can be soothed to sleep with iPhones, and some toddlers know how to work an iPad but don’t understand why a print book doesn’t respond to touch commands. Reader, Come Home seeks to examine what we risk losing if we fail to approach the new literacy landscape with eyes wide open, as well as what we stand to gain from an evidence based approach to the future of reading.
What drew me to Wolf’s perspective in grad school remains true of her approach to Reader, Come Home. While some critics raise an almost hysterical ballyhoo about the perils of the digital age, Wolf takes a more balanced and pragmatic attitude. She frequently references Socrates, who was an adamant opponent of the shift from an oral, dialectic method of learning, to one that relied on the written word. He was worried that students would never truly master a concept if they could look it up, rather than having to commit it firmly to memory. Sound familiar? Many a similar argument is raised about the digital shift, and while Wolf points out that Socrates was right that reading has changed the way we operate in the world, it has proved an invaluable tool for civilization. Her approach to digital technologies is much the same. What she is arguing for is essentially mindfulness, an observant approach to the changes that have already begun to subtly shape our reading lives, and will only more profoundly affect the reading lives of children who are just beginning their journey into literacy. Only by studying the evidence about what reading is doing for us, and how that is changing, can we make informed decisions about how we want to read, and how we want to teach future generations of children to read.
Doing our best by future generations of readers is a daunting prospect by all accounts. We have only just begun to understand the neuroscience of the reading brain, and how that landscape shifts when the reading occurs on digital rather than physical platforms. Furthermore, we can only guess at the future we are preparing children for; many of the jobs that they will hold as adults do not exist yet, after all. It is even possible that some of them will benefit from growing up constantly switching and navigating between multiple platforms and inputs near simultaneously. But while it is difficult to know the precise skills that they will need, Wolf argues that we cannot go wrong by preserving the development of the reading brain circuit that ultimately leads to deep analytic and critical thinking skills. To allow this development to be fractured by the near constant interruptions of the digital world as it is currently designed, would be a mistake in her reckoning.
Wolf divides her book into letters, addressed to the reader, and signed by herself, though this conceit can be easily forgotten in between. In the early chapters, she delves into the neuroscience of the reading brain, using the metaphor of the three ring circus. As she points out, reading is not a natural, hardwired skillset of the human brain. Rather, it is neuroplasticity that enables the brain to adapt a variety of brain regions originally developed for other purposes to this human invention. But the flip side of neuroplasticity is that we must use our skills, or risk losing them. A digital media consumption style that sees consumers change sources of information twenty-seven times per hour, and picking up their phones nearly two hundred times per day inevitably affects our focus. This fracturing of our attention affects memory, which in turn affects comprehension, and our ability to critically assess the information we consume, or draw inferences between disparate sources.
But if Wolf is concerned about how the reading lives of adults with fully formed prefrontal cortices and well-developed reading circuits, the heart of her worry is clearly much more focused on new readers—perhaps unsurprising in someone who studies reading acquisition. Several of the letters are dedicated to her ideas about how to teach children multiple literacies in an evolving environment, modelled on the best studies about teaching bilingual children. Her suggestions come with the caveat that we must continue to study and change these recommendations as we learn more about reading in multiple mediums. She specifically warns against forbidding screens, arguing that this will render them into tantalizing forbidden fruit.
Undoubtedly, these digitally native readers will grow up to have their own ideas about how they wish to interact with information. As a cuspy millennial, born before the digital revolution but growing up alongside it, I have some inherent wariness of how older people view my generation, and I have no doubt that younger people will come to feel the same about us. But when it comes to the relative merits of the digital versus physical reading, I think Wolf, overall, puts it well: “The stakes are far too high to cling to one side or the other. The reality is that we cannot and should not go back; nor should we move ahead thoughtlessly.”