The act of reading has taken an odd turn lately, though many longtime readers don't know exactly what's happening. Is it true that that those of us who regularly read on computer screens find serious reading difficult? Do we find it hard to finish a book? Are we easily distracted?
Those are questions raised by Maryanne Wolf, a UCLA neuroscientist and an expert in reading. Like most of us, she's aware that working daily with a computer screen must affect the way we process whatever we read. Wolf herself wondered whether she was losing the knack of sustained reading. To understand, she performed an experiment on herself.
She set aside enough time to re-read a book she had loved as a young woman, Hermann Hesse's Magister Ludi. Alas, she soon discovered that Hesse no longer pleased her. "I hated the book. I hated the whole so-called experiment." The narrative proved painfully slow.
She had changed in ways she would never have predicted. "I now read on the surface and very quickly; in fact, I read too fast to comprehend deeper levels, which forced me constantly to go back and re-read the same sentence over and over with increasing frustration." She had lost the cognitive patience that once sustained her in reading such narratives.
She still buys books, "but more and more I read in them rather than being whisked away by them." At some point she had "begun to read more to be informed than to be immersed, much less to be transported."
She's not alone. As a writer in the Guardian recently pointed out, "Skim reading is the new normal." Just about everyone does it, perhaps not aware that in a few years it becomes habitual. The reader who skims can lose the ability to grasp another person's feelings or perceive beauty. Certainly there's little time for empathy or awe.
Wolf's recent book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, gives a grim account of a typical researcher who skims through a text looking for key words, grasps the context, darts to the conclusions, and (only if warranted) returns to the body of the text to cherry-pick supporting details.
Wolf and other neuroscientists suggest that research of that kind erodes the "deep reading brain."
Universities report that students now avoid signing on for classes in 19th-century literature. They realize they can no longer work through Dickens or George Eliot.
Reading, Wolf explains, is an unnatural process that has to be learned by each individual. Unlike vision or speech, there's no genetic program for reading. She's often helped people with dyslexia, a condition that proves "our brains were never wired to read."
In her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, published in 2007, she alerted readers to their new limitations. In the title, Marcel Proust stands for the most ambitious and most challenging aspect of writing and reading; the squid celebrates the scientific discovery in the 1950s of how neurons (in squid) fire and absorb information.
Perhaps we need a new kind of brain, a "bi-literate" reading brain. Wolf emphasizes the brain's astonishing plasticity, its "protean capacity" to forge new links and reorganize itself to learn new skills. "We are, it would seem from the start, genetically poised for breakthroughs."
We know that the beginning of literacy necessitated the creation of neural circuitry in the brain of our species over thousands of years. Now, faced with a relatively fresh challenge, we need to adapt quickly to read one way on the screen, another way when poring over a substantial and challenging book. It's a possibility.