I saw a ridiculous commercial on TV last week. A dapper young man was striding along the street carrying a briefcase while the narrator intoned something like, “It has been shown that all successful people read—but in our busy world when you don’t have time, we can provide you with the most important lessons from books like Thinking Fast and Slow and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Then a svelte young woman in running gear with ear buds glides by happily consuming a 300 page book chopped down to a 15 minute audio clip. The company was called Blinkist, and honestly, it felt like an ad from an episode of Saturday Night Live.
Neurologist Maryanne Wolf would vigorously take issue with such an enterprise. Having spent her life studying the effects of diminished book reading over the last century, she knows that the loss of reading time and especially the usurpation of digital reading over book reading has caused transformative changes in the brain. Unfortunately, it’s the young brain that has taken the full impact of this careening high tech force.
One important experience that is vanishing is something that she calls "deep reading," best summed up by a quote from Proust: “Sentences in which our initial predictions for the meaning of a word are not confirmed require a cerebrally pregnant pause.” Depending on the complexity of the material, the brain goes back and forth between high and low levels of processing and, in doing so, exercises many more parts of the brain. We need what Wolf calls cognitive patience to do this and if we lose this ability we could find ourselves with belligerent forms of intolerance. She also describes the world we live in as a place where people check their phones up to 150 times per day. This hyper attention is rapid task switching and it induces a low threshold for boredom. She calls it grasshopper brain, brains bathed in cortisol and adrenaline. You can see where she is going with this.
Reader, Come Home provides us with intimate details of brain function, vision, language, and neuroplasticity. Wolf has endeavoured to make something extremely complicated more accessible and for the most part she succeeds. Did you know that there were as many connections in a cubic centimeter of the brain as there are stars in the Milky Way? As she puts it, “Brain cells are connected in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessitates new strains of mathematics.” Wolf has lots of data backing up striking changes in the brain. For instance, sequencing of detail and memory for detail are worse when reading on a screen and the average memory span has diminished by 50% in the last decade.
The book is written as a series of letters to you, the reader. If you are a parent, it will probably be the most important book you read this year. Maryanne Wolf is not a Luddite. She believes digital media does have a place in our lives, and that kids need technological acumen to participate in the world. But she wants you to know how important physical books are for people of all ages. Babies love sitting on their parents' laps reading Good Night Moon many times a day. Countless families have grown up reading Harry Potter together. And a good book and a cup of coffee is nirvana to many. Let’s heed Wolf's warnings so that the future brain can come to know the world in this tried and true way.