The ability to re-read long novels might not seem directly relevant to our current political dysfunction, but neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid) makes a strong case that it is in her new book, Reader, Come Home, which I wrote about for The Washington Post:
“She makes a sound case that if we don’t protect and cultivate what Dunne called the ‘quiet eye,’ we could not only lose the pleasures of reading but also hasten the erosion of core democratic values, already under siege in American public and private life. She worries that we now lack the ‘cognitive patience’ necessary to identify fake news and to entertain points of view very different from our own. That makes the ailing body politic more vulnerable to demagogues, white supremacists, Russian hackers and other poisonous influences.”
The good news: Wolf argues, persuasively, that we can recover our ability to read deeply, even if it’s a struggle. I discovered that this year when I reread two blockbuster novels from my grad-school days: Middlemarch by George Eliot and Bleak House by Charles Dickens. It took me a while to get back in the swing of reading 800-page novels, but once I got my groove back I remembered why I love reading as much as I do.
More good news: Digital technologies hold out a lot of promise for learners with dyslexia and other conditions that can interfere with literacy. Wolf says, rightly, that more research is needed–isn’t it always?–but we should embrace this aspect of digital reading. She also, intriguingly, holds out hope that new generations will develop “biliterate brains” that can switch from print-based deep reading to online skimming and back again the way bilingual speakers move with ease between two languages.
(Photo: Reading Together, Circa 1895, from the collections of the State Library of Queensland)