“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.
The internet (or more specifically, social media) is not entirely to blame; this has been a long process. Despite the “perfect storm” of technology and applications that has been brewing a cauldron of illiteracy and stupidity online for the past two decades, it’s only the latest in a series of recent cometary strikes against our collective enlightenment. McLuhan and Postman both warned about visual media (TV in particular) overtaking print media as the prime source of consumer information, education, politics, and entertainment.
And don’t get me wrong: I am an aficionado of film (I especially like classic scifi 1940s-60s, vintage monster/kaiju films 1930s-70s, and a whole raft of B-film genres). Visual media is important in contributing to social narratives, and is also good entertainment. And entertainment is critical to our general wellbeing. I’ve even been known to enjoy a TV show or two (albeit it’s been more than a decade since we ditched cable, but we do still stream some shows). It’s not an either-or condition, but rather one that should be complementary.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle posited that a good society has three lives: one of knowledge and productivity (and politics); one of entertainment and leisure (pleasure); the third of contemplation (study). Unfortunately, the first and third require effort, and have too often been subsumed by our penchant for entertainment and convenience over anything that requires work and thinking. We need all of them to have a whole society, but in a consumerist, convenience-oriented, non-reading, and selfish society, we collectively choose the easiest, most entertaining, least-hard-work options. Deep reading is for many too hard, too demanding, too slow.
But even at its most artistic and cerebral, film (and TV, video) does not do to the brain what reading does. Look, for example, at the Harry Potter movies. These are terrifically entertaining, great fun to watch; exciting, imaginative, cleverly done. But like most movies, they pale in comparison to the books. Not because they are in any way bad or inferior representations, but because they do not engage the human brain in the same way books do. They don’t build the connections, engage the imagination, nor engage the many brain areas reading does.
When you read, you have to imagine every classroom, the shape of the wands, the colour of the bricks, the look of the dementors, the sounds of a spell. In the movie, you get all of that onscreen, with no imagination required. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch them: just that a diet of visual stimuli alone is starvation for the brain. And when you read you have to remember all of it: not just what the letters are or what words they make. You have to remember what characters say, what you imagined the halls looked like, who is talking, what happened… not just from line to line, but page to page, chapter to chapter. Your brain has to translate words into images, then remember a vast amount of information, just so you can turn the page. Brains, like muscles, need exercise to avoid atrophy.
Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader. Words “contain” meaning but, more important, words potentiate meaning… This is a word’s dormant power, brimming with pertinence. So little is needed from the author, when you think of it.
Peter Mendelsund: What We See When We Read (Vintage Books, 2014)
Reading is exercise for imaginations. By not reading, people lose their imagination, lose the ability to conceive ideas and futures beyond what they see. Without imagination, creativity dies.
Not just what they imagine from a particular book, but rather the broader sense: for non-readers their ability to imagine anything other than what is presented visually dissipates. This might explain why so many people fall for hoaxes, conspiracies, and cons: they cannot imagine the alternatives, including the truths their beliefs avoid. It might also explain why so many governments (including our own municipal council) are easily misled, confused, and indecisive: their politicians lack the ability to imagine alternatives not presented by staff in some visual presentation. They cannot think creatively (the metaphorical “outside-the-box” thinking) because they don’t read in-depth.
And when I say read I mean books, in-depth articles, long magazine features, essays, technical documents, policy papers. Simply reading summaries, tweets, Facebook posts, or other short snippets is not in-depth reading: it’s skimming. The result of not reading is all too evident in the US president: a remarkably ignorant, yet powerful individual reluctant to acknowledge, let alone accept, facts, science, and evidence because he cannot read anything long enough to explain them. The result of not reading explains why so many people refer to YouTube videos to brace their wacky anti-mask, anti-vax, pseudoscience, Qanon and similar cultish beliefs: they cannot (or will not) read the factual material that disproves their conspiracy claptrap.
On her website, a description of Wolf’s latest book says,
When people process information quickly and in brief bursts, as is common today, they curtail the development of the “contemplative dimension” of the brain that provides humans with the capacity to form insight and empathy. In describing the wonders of the “deep reading circuit” of the brain, Wolf bemoans the loss of literary cultural touchstones in many readers’ internal knowledge base, complex sentence structure, and cognitive patience, but she readily acknowledges the positive features of the digitally trained mind, like improved task switching.
I don’t think exchanging empathy, knowledge, being well-spoken, and insight for better “task switching” is an even trade. Several studies suggest reading on digital devices encourages multitasking, which in itself distracts from deep reading, and discourages comprehension. But when the technology is combined with the application like social media, you not only get shallow reading but shallow content. It becomes more TL:DR material.
A 2018 study showed 70% of Facebook users only read the headlines of a story before commenting and sharing (another study suggested 59% of all links posted on social media are not even clicked on before being shared or commented on). (Did YOU click on these to read what they offered?)
A 2017 article in Psychology Today about the effects of reading on digital devices noted,
There is concern that the reliance upon shallow reading may interfere with the development of deep reading skills such as thoughtful pondering, critical analysis and inferential thinking. It is feared that neurological connections required for deep reading such as brain areas involved in visual processing and phonological processing may not be made in those people who learn primarily via shallow reading.
By no means is everything online a shallow read. There are credible magazines and newspapers with long reads, scientific and medical journals, literary critiques, even lengthy entertainment pieces. But, as Nicholas Carr noted in a 2008 piece in The Atlantic, research has shown that even with long pieces people are becoming accustomed to skimming: reading a page or two at most, then jumping to another article. Carr complained that the “chronic state of distraction follows us long after we shut down our computers” and that people would lose their contemplative mode of thought, and become less creative even as they improved in multitasking. In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2011), Carr wrote:
…the continued existence of the codex, though it may provide some cheer to bibliophiles, doesn’t change the fact that books and book reading, at least as we’ve defined those things in the past, are in their cultural twilight. As a society, we devote ever less time to reading printed words, and even when we do read them, we do so in the busy shadow of the Internet. … Fifty years ago, it would have been possible to make the case that we were still in the age of print. Today, it is not.
There’s a Wallace Stevens poem called The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm that captures the reader and the act of reading vividly:
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
As someone who often spends a late summer afternoon or early evening sitting with my wife on our porch, quietly reading together, with a glass of wine and our dog for company, I can see ourselves in this poem; each lost in a book. Many a day we’ve reluctantly had to break away from our reading, when it became too dark to read outdoors.
What you read matters, too. Reading fiction is special because it is, according to Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, “…essentially an exploration of the human experience… [it] enables us to become better at actually understanding other people and what they’re up to …Reading fiction enables you to sample across a much wider range of possible people and come to understand something about the differences among them.”
But not every work or type of fiction has that effect: there is a difference between reading literary fiction and genre fiction: “Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships.”
The results suggest that reading fiction is a valuable socializing influence. The study data could inform debates over how much fiction should be included in educational curricula and whether reading programs should be implemented in prisons, where reading literary fiction might improve inmates’ social functioning and empathy.
There are numerous studies on the transformative effects and the “association between fiction-reading and cognitive empathy” derived from reading fiction.
Neither Wolf nor Carr are pessimistic, despite the alarmist nature of some of their findings. Both celebrate reading and its positive effects, and both encourage more of it to combat the insidious effects on the brain that the lack of deep reading creates. And as Canadians, we have great cause for optimism, because we are, collectively, still a nation of readers. According to a 2019 poll:
Canadian adult readers report that they spend an average of six hours per week reading at least one book, with 34% reading two or more at a time… books are the most popular medium at bedtime with 75% of the interviewed readers associating books with bedtime or evening routine. When looking at reading trends across the seasons, it appears that Canadians plan to welcome winter by curling up with a good book as 72% of Canadians are more likely to read during the colder months.
It may be too late to restore the minds of people like Donald Trump or our local councillors through remedial, deep reading (their skills at such have likely atrophied beyond recovery), but perhaps there is hope we can wean younger generations off their ubiquitous phones (and older generations from their TV sets with the risibly fictitious Fox “news” on the screen) and point their attention into books. Doing so might save our civilization and restore our declining sense of empathy and thus save our humanity.