Reader, Come Home – Maryanne Wolf

There’s lots of Maryanne Wolf’s book Reader, Come Home, that I did not understand. Y’know, science-y stuff. I read this book, written as a series of letters addressed to readers, with my highlighter in hand and I found it extremely compelling. Wolf is a scientist with a particular interest in how the human brain learns to read and how digital media is impacting our reading lives, in particular, the lives of young readers. As a person who spends a fair amount of time on line, but does the bulk of my reading the old fashioned way, I found her research and observations fascinating. And, of course, as a teacher who is very committed to getting my students to read for pleasure, I found her insights alarming.

Instead of ‘reviewing’ this book, I will just share a few of the many things Wolf offered that either reinforced my own feelings or provided food for thought. Although I didn’t understand a lot of the brain science stuff, Reader, Come Home was accessible and easy to read and I think should be required reading for literacy teachers and anyone else who is at all concerned by the way people consume digital media. That said, Wolf isn’t anti-digital. I think we can all agree that there’s no turning back the clock on the way digital media has taken over our lives. She offers a thoughtful compromise that takes into account our dependence on our smart phones and tablets, and while she isn’t an alarmist necessarily, her research definitely reveals some alarming insights.

Here are just a handful of things Wolf says that gave me pause:

There would be many things that would be lost if we slowly lose the cognitive patience to immerse ourselves in the worlds created by books and the lives and feelings of the “friends” who inhabit them.

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Without sufficient background knowledge, the rest of the deep-reading proccesses will be deployed less often, leading to a situation in which many people will never move outside the boundaries of what they already know.

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…the average person consumes about 34 gigabytes across varied devices each day. Basically, that’s the equivalent of close to 100, 000 words a day.

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…”skimming” is the new normal in our digital reading.

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…consider the increasing unease of many English professors in universities and in high schools that growing numbers of their students no longer have the “patience” to read literature from the nineteenth century and early half of the twentieth century.

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I have begun to question the cognitive loss of not being willing, or perhaps in the future, even able to navigate the demands of the complex concepts in denser prose.

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…student writing is deteriorating [and] we must ask whether current students’ diminishing familiarity with conceptually demanding prose and the daily truncating of their writing on social media is affecting their writing in more negative ways than in the past.

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In a 2015 RAND report, the average amount of time spent by three-to five-year-old children on digital devices was four hours a day. […] These issues become more intensified for older children, as the hours spent in front of screens double and triple to twelve-plus hours a day among many adolescents.

If you are even remotely interested in the impact of reading in the digital age, Reader, Come Home offers much food for thought. As a reader, I found it both horrifying and reassuring.