Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf (Book Review)

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital WorldReader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just as in Wolf’s earlier book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, the author writes passionately about the act of reading, particularly its necessity in fostering the connections, predictions, inferences, and other requisite skills involved in critical thinking. For this neuroscience professor, these are skills that come exclusively from the slow, close reading of printed texts and will not be developed in the same way in the brains of readers who primarily engage in the type of fast, distracted, multitasking reading that occurs on electronic devices. I can see how this may make her seem like an angry Luddite or like Neil Postman railing against the supplanting of formal oratory by television in his 1985 classic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. That’s not the case, however. What Wolf is actually advocating here is a type of codeswitching in which the brains of young readers will be equally adept with literature and social media, with physical books and digital screens. It’s an intriguing stance that she adequately supports in this book’s nine letters to an imagined reader.

Beyond this, it’s hard not to notice that Wolf is also writing about the rise of Trump and nationalist populism without explicitly mentioning either one. When she writes, “How our citizens think, decide and vote depends on their collective ability to navigate the complex realities of digital milieu with intellects not just capable of, but accustomed to higher-level understanding and analysis,” it doesn’t take much work to know exactly what she means. Similarly, when she writes, “The great, insufficiently discussed danger to a democracy stems not from the expression of different views but from the failure to ensure that all citizens are educated to use their full intellectual powers in forming those views,” it brings to mind much of the rhetoric that guy you know who never went to college or left your hometown is currently spouting on social media. For Wolf, critical literacy is the best safeguard against demagoguery, xenophobia, and fascism. It’s hard to argue she’s wrong.

Reader, Come Home is one of the better books I’ve read on this subject, a worthy successor to Wolf’s own prior work as well as books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. It should probably be essential reading for language arts teachers, but there’s just as much to offer for parents of children of all ages mesmerized by screens and devices as well as a general public that no longer regularly sits down to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of being immersed in the written word. Our discourse, the generation of knowledge, and even our government depend on a population literate enough to engage with ideas.

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