War in the Heaven of Our Minds

Review: 'Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World' by Maryanne Wolf

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Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World is a gentle manifesto from Maryanne Wolf. At Tufts and UCLA and elsewhere, Wolf is a teacher and student of the reading brain, the miracle of neuroplasticity you are using right now, and Reader, Come Home is a celebration of books that have pages, and a declaration of careful revolt against acquiescence to the tyranny of screens, and while I, convinced by her writing, initially drafted by hand this little essay to you, you are reading this on a computer, or on your phone, or perhaps a tablet, and are wondering about now if this sentence will ever draw to a close, or if like Cicero's colleagues in the Roman Senate you must really sit and wait in resignation for the syntactic labyrinth to unwind itself, until it arrives finally at a period.

If you are a millennial or older, you remember a time when you had a little more patience for sentences like that, when long reading, tugging on and following the thread to the center of the maze, was meditative, restive, often fun, leading as it did to the exhilaration of thought and imagination. You have struggled with that lately. As have I. Perhaps you have already begun to skim this—it's too long; didn't read—looking for whatever terms might show up on whatever test your pride will proctor later.

The physiology of reading, the big-tent circus act and song-and-dance routine inside our brains Wolf wonderfully describes in the early letters of her book, is different when we encounter digital media, dealing as it does with the phantasm of light that is the "page" displayed on a screen, and situated as it is a click or strokes away from more information than we could ever process, let alone comprehend. In that glow there is always something more and new, and so the brain is hacked, stuck in the rush of suspended fight or flight, anticipating.

Wolf fears, as many do, that we will lose something of ourselves, something beautiful and important, if we do not do something about the consumption of our waking hours by digital media:

What concerns me as a scientist is whether expert readers like us, after multiple hours (and years) of daily screen reading, are subtly changing the allocation of our attention to key processes when reading longer, more demanding texts. Will our quality of attention in reading—the basis of the quality of our thought—change inexorably as our culture transitions away from a print-based culture toward a digital one? 

Wolf worries we run the risk of losing deep reading—that opposite state to the anxious preoccupation found in reading screens. It is the occupied, receptive mind at peace, as she reminds us, which reads as fast as it can and as slow as it needs to, hurrying up to slow down. It is what brings us to the state of contemplation and the moment of realization. It helps us to learn. But, more important even than that, it shapes and is shaped by the quality and allocation of our attention.

Simone Weil, maiden-mystic Joan of Arc to the intellect, tells us that reading well bears spiritual fruit, for like other acts of the mind it is an exercise and practice of the attention, and attention is the essence of prayer—"the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God." Therefore: "Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted. It always has its effect on the spiritual plane and in consequence on the lower one of the intelligence, for all spiritual light lights the mind." But we must be careful, and in the blue light of a digital world, doubly so, not equate mere effort and the weariness of extended concentration with deep reading or true attention.

The labors of will power are the labors of the body and muscular contraction—they form the soul in strength and virtue through the endurance of sufferings. But the labors of the mind, among which reading is one of the chief, are labors of joy and desire, the drawing out of the self and soul toward elevation in truth and imagination. Until reading well is habit, it cannot be the joy and labor of desire that can shape the mind and soul as a fertile application of attention. The habits of technology make war then, if Simone Weil is right, upon the part of us that can learn to pray.

Wolf mostly sees the digital as an opportunity, and therefore as a mere alternate good—a distraction from and an obstacle to the goods of reading material text, but not the sworn enemy and assassin of attention. She affirms and celebrates the power of reading for the formation of our moral imaginations, and a lifetime of bookish devotion bubbles to the surface of her lovely prose in allusion and quotation, but Wolf minimizes the active antagonism of technological society as we have made it.

She preaches the gospel of a "biliterate" future, in which humanity navigates the written and displayed word with equal facility. Equal facility does not mean identical faculty however, and this is the core of Wolf's idea: She proposes cultivating screened and physical reading as distinct acts, partitioned by separate pedagogies and practice. The joy of reading, with a genuine effort of the attention, can be recaptured by us, the adult expert readers, and transmitted to the next generation. The brain learns to read books; perhaps it can lay alternate tracks for reading pixels without hijacking the page-reader's train of thought.

I defer to Wolf's expertise on the matter of neuroplasticity in theory. But I must express skepticism on the matter of truly siloed reading approaches—which would be really siloed realities—in practice. The theoretical wall of separation between digital and analog life is semi-permeable, allowing passage from one side to the other, and we all know which direction that osmosis goes. The second half of Reader, Come Home contains Wolf's timeline for introducing screens to children so they may build their distinct digital reading circuits. It seems too hopeful by half. Her manifesto is too gentle, her revolution too careful. We need manned barricades against the technological order we've created, not just mental curtains against digital anxiety and distraction.

The glory of reading is its capacity to make us more ourselves, as we learn with minimal mediation how to pay attention and integrate within our own minds the varieties of human thought and experience. But technology teaches and shapes us, too. Humanity's efforts to imagine the future into which we are running headlong, the confrontation within ourselves between the physical word and its facsimile on screens, those light bearers—and once Satan was named Lucifer—have not been exactly hopeful. Consider the despairing suicide of John the Savage in Brave New World. Or Montag on the run in Fahrenheit 451, his mind clinging to Ecclesiastes and a little bit of Revelation. What is read in a book becomes part of the self, word made a kind of flesh in us, but the glow of a monitor represents data, information not our own, othered and out there, and us just more nodes.