The Long Read Lost

Reading by candlelight
“What we read, how we read, and why we read change how we think, changes that are continuing now at a faster pace,” wrote Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist, in her book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World (Harper Paperbacks, 2019). It’s the sequel to her previous book on reading and neuroscience, Proust and the Squid (Harper, 2007). In that latter book, Wolf famously wrote,

We are not only what we read, we are how we read.

Reading — Marcel Proust called it a “fertile miracle of communication effected in solitude” — is a breathtakingly remarkable, and uniquely human talent, yet one that we have no genetic disposition for, like we have for speaking or for social behaviour. No one is born knowing how to read. It must be learned by each of us individually, painstakingly from a young age and practiced through a lifetime. It is the classic case of nurture over nature. Yet there are an estimated 800 million illiterate people in the world today.

Learning to read changes our brains, rewires our neural networks, creates new connections, and helps us think. Not in a metaphorical sense: the changes have been mapped by neuroscientists like Wolf and her colleagues. Yet reading (and its co-host inventions, writing, and the alphabet; itself even younger at a mere 3,800 years old), is a very recent talent, historically speaking. The oldest known record of writing is a mere 5,500 years old; the oldest Sumerian tablets are about 4,400 years old. The first complete alphabet (ancient Greek: with symbols for vowels as well as consonants) is from around 750 BCE. In modern times, the first book was produced on a Western printing press only about 570 years ago. That’s a remarkably short time in the 300,000-400,000-year history of our species.

“In a span of only six millennia reading became the transformative catalyst for intellectual development within individuals and within literate cultures,” Wolf added. Right from the beginning of writing, stories were part of the written record: the imaginations of ancient civilizations were carved on clay and in stone, for us to read even today.

Literate cultures. The term might refer to cultures which have a reasonably high level in the ability to actually read regardless of its content, but could also refer to a civilization that has a culture of deep, passionate, and lengthy reading: one that celebrates in books, poetry, magazines, and other forms of the written word. It’s a civilization that has book clubs, discusses and shares books, has public libraries and bookstores, poetry festivals, and has plays performed and authors celebrated. A literate culture even has cursive writing (somewhat of a canary in the coal mine of literacy).

We are such a culture, even though — at least from my perspective — we continue to move at an accelerating pace to a more visually-oriented, non-reading culture, away from the written form; a short form culture where the tweet, the sound bite, and the YouTube video all have more reach than a long article or story. Our attachment to many of the longer written forms is dissipating. Long reads online are often prefaced by the initialism TL:DR — “Too Long; Didn’t Read” with a tweet-sized precis for those who will not (or cannot) read the longer piece.

The quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species. There is much at stake in the development of the reading brain and in the quickening changes that now characterize its current, evolving iterations. (P. 2)

We live in an astoundingly complex, complicated, demanding, challenging world. To understand it even at a very basic level, we need to be able to read and read deeply; not simply watch videos or read tweets. We need to ignore the noise of social media and open books, newspapers (real newspapers, not merely the local ad-wrappers), and magazines to get a fulsome explanation of what is happening in our lives. No one can understand or learn about politics, economics, or science from tweets.

Not reading deeply is plunging us into an increasingly anti-intellectual age, suspicious of learning and science. We have world leaders who are barely literate or are even functionally illiterate, and yet who take pride in their ignorance. The result is the proliferation of conspiracy cults, pseudoscience, anti-mask and anti-vaccination movements, and both political and religious fundamentalism (most of which claptrap, not surprisingly, originates from the right wing of the political spectrum).

And it’s not just Donald Trump, although he is the epitome of the illiterate, uninformed, conspiracy-addled leader. Look at the leaders of Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, and even here in Ontario: populist (rightwing) leaders like these share similar attributes, including a distrust of institutions, science, and experts. I’ve served with members of our local municipal council who never even read agendas or staff reports, let alone books (we now have a council replete with such non-readers). The result at all levels of government is evident in the decay of public debate, the reduction to populist, slogan-based oratory, slovenly and uninformed decision making, and lackluster governance. But I digress.

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A Treasure Trove

AssholesA recent trip to Toronto to see family and friends – and celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary – also netted me a treasure trove of books, thanks to the proximity of a new/used BMV bookstore to our hotel. And, of course, Susan’s patience while I browsed the shelves. Several times.

I managed to find a dozen books (well, to be fair I found many more I wanted, but restrained myself to buying only a dozen). These included:

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller (hardcover, Norton & Co., 2012). I actually started reading the paperback version of this book only last week and was immediately swept away by it. A rich story about politics, food, economics, travel, business, law, agriculture and culture, it deserves a post all on its own. I bought the second copy so I could share it with friends. This book has already changed the way I see not only olive oil, but the food industry in general – and it added a whole new dimension to my understanding of the economics of the Roman Empire. Of course, it helped to have my eyes (and taste buds) opened to authentic olive oil by the folks at the Collingwood Olive Oil Co.

Blandings, by P.G. Wodehouse (Arrow Books/Random House, 2012). Six of Wodehouse’s Blandings tales that were made into the recent BBC series. I discovered numerous other Wodehouse titles in paperback at the store, none of which I have read, and was torn: which to buy? All? Some? One? I settled on the one volume (in part because I plan to get the BBC series on DVD) but will return for more. Several more. I already have most of his Jeeves & Wooster writing, but not much of the rest (and yes, I have the BBC Jeeves & Wooster series on DVD, too).

The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdal (Shambala Library, 2008). A relatively new translation of the teachings of the Buddha, one that will be a companion to the other new translation I recently bought. I have several versions of this work and this might be the best and most accessible, but I must compare verses to see which offers me the strongest resonance. The Dhammapada is an essential book in my library; one of those irreplaceable books of wisdom. I had originally considered this title when I got the Wallis translation but decided on Wallis after reading some online reviews (you can read my comments about it here). I think I’ll post some verse comparisons in a future post.

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Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief

I read a story in Science News today about a study that shows, “analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, even in devout believers.”

“Our goal was to explore the fundamental question of why people believe in a God to different degrees,” says lead author Will Gervais, a PhD student in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology. “A combination of complex factors influence matters of personal spirituality, and these new findings suggest that the cognitive system related to analytic thoughts is one factor that can influence disbelief.”

The findings, Gervais says, are based on a longstanding human psychology model of two distinct, but related cognitive systems to process information: an “intuitive” system that relies on mental shortcuts to yield fast and efficient responses, and a more “analytic” system that yields more deliberate, reasoned responses.

“Our study builds on previous research that links religious beliefs to ‘intuitive’ thinking,” says study co-author and Associate Prof. Ara Norenzayan, UBC Dept. of Psychology. “Our findings suggest that activating the ‘analytic’ cognitive system in the brain can undermine the ‘intuitive’ support for religious belief, at least temporarily.”

HouseHmm, I mused to myself. Is the reverse therefore equally true? Does lack of religious belief lead to more analytic thinking?
Perhaps instead of trying to de-program cult victims, we can just get them to do sudoku puzzles. In fact, if I were in charge, I’d start putting sudoku puzzles in hymnals and church programs right away…

Okay, more seriously, what does this mean for psychology and genetics? That people with lower capacity or ability for analytic thinking are more likely to be religious, and will pass that tendency down the generations? Will the same hold true when two analytic thinkers mate? That raises the spectre of the old nature-vs-nurture debate.

I would like to see that experiment done with the fringies – the people who believe in pseudoscience like psychics, ghosts, astrology, crystal healing, magnetic therapy, homeopathy and other claptrap. See if the results still hold true.

How many chess puzzles do you have to solve before you suddenly wake up and realize, “Hey, I don’t actually have an aura! It’s all bunk!” And then start wondering why you’ve been paying that charlatan for years to “read” nothing…

How’s this idea: make anyone who has posted any saccharine, “inspirational”, warm-n-fuzzy quote or image on Facebook have to complete a test on algebra before they are allowed to post anything again. That includes any sayings with images of puppies, kittens, bunnies, centaurs, angels, or Gandalf.

Future studies will explore whether the increase in religious disbelief is temporary or long-lasting, and how the findings apply to non-Western cultures

The study was done at the University of British Columbia with 650 participants. The original UBC press release is here. I’m going to have to get that issue of Science to read the whole story.