Cognitive neuroscientist, professor and dyslexia researcher Maryanne Wolf (
|photo: Rod Searcey
Proust and the Squid) looks to the future of literacy in
Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World (Harper, $24.99). Through insightful, inspiring letters, Wolf invites us to remember--amid the glow of iPads and e-readers--the fire lit by reading.
You chose the epistolary form for Reader, Come Home, writing short to medium-length letters to your readers. Did this approach feel like an acquiescence to modern attention spans? Or liberating? Or both?
How interesting that you connect the briefer form of the letter to my concern for the attention span of the reader! But, in reality, it had nothing to do with my worries about the reader's limits, but about my appreciation for their very different thoughts, bases of knowledge and ineluctable differences from my perspective on the potential for negative effects from digital devices. I wanted the reader to know we can both learn from one another. The letter gives author and reader the opportunity for a dialogue. If you remember, at the end of the first letter, I quote Thomas Aquinas (whom I have never respected more) as saying, "Iron sharpens iron." So will it be, I hope, for the reader of my letters.
You cite a vast array of writers, thinkers and readers. In the span of a page you might toggle between Emily Dickinson and David Eagleman--a titan of literature and a neuroscience rock star. How did you choose which voices to include?
My very dear friend, Heidi Bally from Switzerland, upon finishing my book, looked up, smiled and said that I always find a way of sharing my "friends" with the readers of my book.... Narrative theologian Fr. John Dunne, novelists Virginia Woolf, Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison, Parisian philosopher Bernard Stiegler and, perhaps most important to me in the last years, the extraordinary pastor of Nazi resistance Dietrich Bonhoeffer, each played a pivotal role in my writing of that last letter. I had to laugh. She was correct. I want all my readers to know these friends, only three of whom I ever met in life, but all of whom I consider friends of a lifetime.
Perhaps that is the real story of this book: letters of introduction or re-introduction to some of the people whom I have come to think embody the best of human thought across multiple disciplines and who individually and collectively contribute to our world's aspiration for the good. Tolkien wrote that his work was meant "to rekindle hearts in a world that's grown chill." My "friends" each do that.
You quote Toni Morrison: "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." You also cite Aristotle on the contemplative life, and Warren Buffet and Bill Gates on the value of time. Where do you find the most value, personally? Where do you see the value of "doing language," or of taking action, intersecting or diverging?
This may be your most difficult and, perhaps, your most important question to me. I never thought that my work on the neuroscience of reading would lead me to the conviction that knowledge about the retreat of critical analysis and empathy in deep reading would have radical implications for a democratic society. But that is now what I believe. We need only begin by looking at ourselves. How many of us have begun to sacrifice critical analysis (and other time-demanding capacities) for being quickly informed because of the glut of information we consume? How many of us trade understanding another perspective to gain a little time to make decisions ultimately less informed? How many Americans retreat to the simplest, most familiar, silo-like sources of information that require less thought, less perspective-taking, less exposure to alternative viewpoints?
As readers, as parents and as citizens, we must ask collectively whether we have already begun the insidious skipping of the time and attention needed to analyze the truth and implications of what we read, leading everyone to be more susceptible to fake everything, fear induction and meaningless promises we know to be false.
There are many factors that contribute to the atrophy of critical analysis and empathy, the prerequisites of a good society. Indeed, we do not need the neuroscience of reading to understand the intellectual, social-emotional and ethical risks of short-circuiting thought and empathy--whether this results from the truncation of complexity through Twitter and/or the banishing of critical analysis through demagoguery in whatever its newest forms. But knowing that this is happening is my responsibility as a researcher, mother and citizen to resist through my work's emphasis on critical thought, empathy and, yes, wisdom. It is not about politics, it is about the preservation of the values of a good society.
In an interview about what he as a scholar should do in these difficult and divisive times, the 87-year-old philosopher Charles Taylor responded, "I shall jump into the fray." So, also, must we all, regardless of political parties or loyalties. We must think for ourselves, and we must feel for other human beings. That is my commitment to the most important uses of written language that I work to preserve in our society, from the youngest to the eldest. --Katie Weed
, freelance writer and reviewer