I recently finished this book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, by Maryanne Wolf. It’s a book about the ways our brains are changing, especially young, still-developing minds, with the increasing pervasiveness of the digital world, screens everywhere all the time. It’s particularly to do with reading, how much we read, why and how we read, and what we read, and how the shift in this is massive, and under-researched. The idea that so much switching back and forth, attention changing, constant informational input or checking our devices, has impacted our ability to stay focused is certainly not new, but in this book, the author considers how our ability to read is important in terms of our ability to think critically, and how our ability to read is impacted by multitasking, screens, access to information at our fingertips all the time.

Much of what I’ve read in the past has more to do with the idea of slow living, slowing down to not be so frazzled by life, to enjoy spending time with your children, to sleep better by putting your phone away, or to be able to cook and enjoy the food you eat and the people you share it with. Maryanne Wolf, the author, is a professor and researcher on reading and brain development, and this book also covers a lot of science, how the brain works, how involved a process reading is, and how technology is changing that.

I have two young minds ready to be moulded, and I wonder all the time about screens, and how they’re using them. I love that Caleb likes to read, and reads independently, and I love that he and Naomi can play outside for hours at a time, and I also wonder about how long that will last, how long I will be able to fend the screens off for, and how wise it is to delay it for too long, if Caleb devolves into a cave man in this manic, fast-paced rat race, where kids will soon be coding their houses into existence. Good thing his kindergarten class had a set of iPads so he could learn to play Minecraft with his friends at school, right?

I suppose this spoke to me particularly, because I found myself, at the beginning of the pandemic, struggling to get through Middlemarch. In fact, accusingly! Wolfe herself references this title in her book. Are you struggling to read Middlemarch, Liz? Is it because you are clicking through 45 emails in a minute and not reading any of them carefully? Perhaps not quite so personalized, although I certainly felt wounded. She questions the increasing inability, or unwillingness (same thing?) for younger people to make it through dense text, professors who are assigning short stories in their classes because James Joyce has become unreadable.

When I had read Middlemarch as 20-year-old, at that point in life, I had no smart phone, no ipad. I was on a laptop for school, but it was nothing like life is now. And when I thought back to reading Middlemarch at that time, I hadn’t remembered it as particularly challenging. The person who lent me the book said it was a good read, and I ended up agreeing with her. It might not have been Stephen King, but I had enjoyed it, found it smart, funny. And this time around, in 2020, it had taken me several hundred pages before things started rolling along again, in the dusty corners of my brain where apparently the neurons were not used to firing, whether it was because my brain had warmed up a bit, or because the characters had finally all found their places. Likely both.

Wolf looks at how we muscle through information, muscling through text, instead of slowing down, reading carefully and deeply, able to focus on more challenging thoughts. Perhaps some of you may say I overthink things a little too much, or perhaps slowing down a bit would help some of the rambling that comes out all too often.

This book was no breezy read, and I have to admit that I got through the last half of it in a vortex of a four hour appointment. I suppose that in itself says something about my own ability to struggle through more complicated language, ideas and words or science terms outside of my usual fiction or memoir. I’m not sure if I would necessarily recommend this book unless you’re someone, as I am, who is interested in reading, or perhaps raising children in this brave new world. I did find it fascinating, though. How our brains work to read, how children learn to read, how quickly things are changing.


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September 21, 2020 — wonderpens



Anna said:

This sounds like a must read as my whole family and I are slaves to the internet, and as I lye here before bedtime on my phone, thanks for recommending.

Michelle Yee

Michelle Yee said:

This post really resonates and is so timely! Thanks for this, Liz! Added to my TPL holds list ;) xo


Rosemary said:

Too true! Our brain is a muscle and we either use it or lose it. I started reading Wolf Hall this summer after lots of easy-reading mystery novels and found that my concentration was not keeping up to it. I need to flex that muscle! We can do it!

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