Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Maryanne Wolf on the Death of (and Ways to Protect) Deep Reading

When journalist Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains appeared in 2010, I remember exchanging emails with Reggie H. and Lisa M. about it, reading numerous articles about it (including excerpts from the book) online, and eventually buying the book to dive fully into what he had to say. Overwhelmed at the time by my usual mountain of required reading it took me a while to get to it, but I did, and found his argument about the effects of the Internet on our brain and neural system quite persuasive. I even blogged a snippet from The Shallows at the end of that year. To quote Carr again:
The Net's cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.
He was certainly on to something crucial about the various cognitive changed spurred by the US's increasing digital turn, and he wasn't alone in his assessment. Others like internet pioneer and guru Jaron Lanier took up related arguments about the effects not just of the net and our brains and nervous system, but the entire e-technological apparatus and its transformation of human sociality, economics, and our contemporary polity. Where Carr was alarmist--now proving to have been correct in his worries--Lanier was more measured, but in both cases, as with others who have written about the effects of the net, social media, etc., they were identifying the songs of more than one canary in the coal mine we're now deeply immersed in.

One very recent entry in this genre is Maryanne Wolf's Reader, Come Home (Harper Collins, 2018), which takes up some of the threads of her earlier books, Proust and the Squid (Harper Collins, 2011), and Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2016), with a shift, as was the case with Carr, on online reading and its effects. Her earlier books explored the origins of human literacy and the challenges that our long human history of interacting with text faced as we moved into our current millennium, but now Wolf, Director of Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, where she is Associate Professor of Child Development, and thus someone steeped in the current state of research on reading, is concerned with reading itself. As Laura Miller describes in her recent Slate review of the book, Wolf began to notice something about her own experience as a reader that I'd noted anecdotally with some of my students, beginning perhaps roughly 10 years ago and increasing among them to the point that I had to rethink my syllabus and approach to teaching: a waning ability to concentrate, and engage in sustained, "deep reading."

And it was not just my students: even for me, I have begun at times to feel a creeping distraction and impatience at any online text that was too long or complex ("tl;dr"), with a resulting desultory engagement in response. When it comes to expansive online texts, the feeling waxes. Skim, leap, surf: shift from one open page to another, one link to another, expect that the headline and the first few paragraphs will supply you with all you need to know. Earlier this year, as I had witnessed among my undergraduates, I even found myself struggling to get into novels, growing impatient after only a few pages, something I had never experienced befored. Wolf felt something similar, bemoaning her own inability to stick with a long, complex text, which is to say, a work not unlike a great deal of literature in a variety of genres written for hundreds of years. This was one of the central points Carr had broached back in 2010--as had Wolf, in turns out, in her 2011 Guardian essay "Will the speed of online thought deplete our analytic thought?", citing none other than Marshall McLuhan, who'd suggested that the medium was the "massage" and the message, that the technology would not only serve as a vessel but shape what it brought to us, and would shape our understanding of it.

In her new book, Wolf specifically recounts the experience of testing her capacity to "deep read" by returning to a novel she'd loved when she was younger, the very dense, multilayered Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), German Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse's 1943 futuristic magnum opus about a group of monk-like intellectuals who retire to a fictional European country known as Castalia, sequestered from most technology and economics, where they run a school for boys and engage in a complex, profoundly subtle form of play, the eponymous Glass Bead Game, that requires a lifetime of study and reflection to perfect. As she recounts, she tried repeatedly to begin it, but could not, yet it was not as if she could not read anything; online texts she sailed, or rather skimmed through. Hesse's novel, however, proved to be a tremendous struggle, and she temporarily set it aside. As an experiment, she set aside a period each day in which she would try again to read it, and, lo and behold, she began to find that after an extended period of struggle, she not only could get into Hesse's novel, but was carried away by it, her mind now in deep reading mode.

As note above, I have seen what Wolf is describing increasingly not just with my students and in my own recent reading habits, but with friends, one of whom admitted not to have read a novel by another writer in a while. The first person buys books of fiction and nonfiction, but when I ask if they have read them, the reply is, No. In terms of my own reading this spring and summer, I've had to force myself not to set the book aside after a few pages to check email or Twitter or look up something on Google, yet when I have stuck with the books. I get transported into the world of the work. This has been the case with novels and collections of short stories by Tayari Jones, Tommy Orange, Rachel Cusk, Uzodinma Iweala, Matthias Énard, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Jamel Brinkley, Celeste Ng, and Beatriz Bracher, to name just a few of them, as well as various longer works I have blurbed or read for judging projects. I enjoyed every last one of them, but initially entering each was more difficult than it ever had been in the past.

So, you might say, Who cares if no one reads long or dense or long, dense works of fiction any more?  What happens if we lose the "cognitive patience" and focus that Wolf argues we may be losing? Hesse's writing and ways of thought may have reached their ends in terms of their possibility of connection--or, to put it more simply--relatability, with contemporary readers. (As someone with a propensity for for dense prose and serpentine syntax, this is not an idle concern.) Even if that's true, what Wolf--like Carr--shows, as prior studies have borne out, is that "deep reading," and the virtual engagement with narratives have powerful, beneficial cognitive effects. One is to foster a capacity for analysis, which texts by Hesse, or the authors I list above, or Marcel Proust, the subject of Wolf's first book, require. To put it another way, every complex work is a kind of detective story, leaving clues the reader must assemble to make sense of the work, even as we are relating it to and contextualizing it with what we already know. The second is a quite powerful feature of fiction writing in particular: empathy. When we enter the minds, perspectives, bodies, and experiences of others in fiction, we connect with them, even if briefly, and this shapes our own views in the wider world. It sounds like hocus-pocus, but it isn't. Literature's emotional power should never be underestimated. But the fact remains, even the simplest works of fiction--and nonfiction--are slow, or at least slower than tiled or laddering screens. You can skip a few sentences or flip a pages ahead but you've probably missed something important--that is, unless you're reading a book like Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch (Rayuela), where this is an integral feature of the novel.

Rather than categorically decrying digital reading, what Wolf suggests is that even if it is reshaping our brain and cognition, there is a way, particularly for those with children or teaching and working with them, to ensure that they learn and engage not only with screens, but with books, so that they don't lose the deep reading facility altogether. For adults, will power and a concerted effort to put digital devices away--and turn off TV screens--is probably the easier and best option. Cultivating this "bi-literate" brain is what Wolf is aiming for. How to do this will a challenge for the future, especially how many people cannot pull themselves away from their phones, especially younger ones. I tend to take a gentle approach with my students in terms of their in-class texting, urging them not to do so, but also recognizing that at times they may have a pressing issue they need to address. On the other hand, I also try to remind myself that I, like most people on this earth when I was in school from age 5 to roughly 32 or so, nearly a decade out of the classroom as part of that mix, made it through entire days without 1) ever picking up a telephone unless it was an emergency and 2) only talking about things on a screen, unless we were watching a video or TV program as part of our less, or doing something very specific on a computer required for class. How did we survive? I did, we did, and I place this thought in the forefront of my brain as I close my laptop, shut off my phone, and dive into another book--a novel, a collection of poetry, short stories or essays, a play. But I'll get to that as soon as I post and read a few Tweets, bookmark a YouTube video, watch a few Instagram stories, and look at one more article online....

No comments:

Post a Comment