Dear Reader, Are You Reading?
Neither the human brain nor the eye were designed for reading
What are you doing, right now? Are you reading this blog post in your first language, or one of your first languages? Did you print this to read? Most likely, you’re reading on a mobile screen. As you recognize the shapes of letters, and the first few letters of each word, your brain will fill in the rest. That happens with full sentences, too. If you are reading on a screen, you’re likely reading in a pattern (maybe the Z pattern, or the F pattern) that will guide you in prioritizing the first set of information, sweeping down through the body of the text to “word spot” in grabbing context and capture some details, and then head to the end.
MaryAnne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (2018) returns after 10 years to map a cognitive landscape that was only beginning to take shape in her earlier book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2008). Like Naomi Baron, whose Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World was published in 2008 and Words on Screen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World appeared in 2015, Wolf was a literary scholar first and became captivated by the study of language in action. In Baron’s case this meant a PhD in semiotics; in Wolf’s, in cognitive neuroscience. The challenge and the passion they share from different disciplinary perspectives and grounding, though each is extraordinarily creative in their multidisciplinary approach, is for reading. What is reading, and what is happening to reading?
These are historical as well as scientific questions, for reading itself is a highly politicized and romanticized activity. Cathy Davidson is another literary scholar who now works in education and technology; her 1986 Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America sketched the anxiety (even hostility) of early American elites to the increasing variety and availability of novels, and what kind of awful ideas they might implant in their readers, especially women. Harvard scholar Leah Price, who met literature and never left it, is about to publish Overbooked: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Reading Wars, which argues that an embrace of ever more accessible print, and its unique capacity to edify and refine individual readers and the body politic, is an artifact of the Victorian era.
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