Friday, April 12, 2019

Booknote: Reader, Come Home

Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home: the Reading Brain in a Digital World. New York: Harper, 2018.   ISBN: 978-0-06-238878-0.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: brain science, reading, technology, literacy
Format: hardcover
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library

This book looks at brain science and what effects increasing technology have on things like critical thinking, empathy, and reflection. It's not quite a jeremiad, since the author does not totally condemn technology, but it is not necessarily optimistic either.

The main issue of this book is that  it is dense at times and very repetitive. The author often repeats points over and over, and you just say yes  I got it, can we move on already? In addition, the book is dense because the author throws in every quote and citation she can find. Even though she is a researcher, more often than not she just keeps piling up references, quotes, and citations from other people. To be honest, it often feels like an undergraduate paper where the student, lacking any original ideas of their own, tossed in all the research material they found to hide their lack of substance. I heard voices of a lot of scholars but not her own voice.

I picked this book up because as a librarian I have an interest in learning about readers. The book does make some good points, including a chapter for parents on raising children in the digital age. Overall, the author writes her chapters as letters, but there is no real epistolary form here. It is basically essay chapters like any other book.

If you read her previous book, Proust and the Squid, you might enjoy this one. I have not read the previous book, and based on this one I have no intention of reading the other book. This book was mainly OK, and I suggest it as optional reading if you must. Borrow it if you must.

2 out of 5 stars.

Additional reading notes:

On the significance of reading. Note also there is a mention about the quality of your reading:

"What we read, how  we read, and why we read change how we think, changes that are continuing now at a faster pace. In a span of only six millennia reading became the transformative catalyst for intellectual development within individuals and within literate cultures. The quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species. There is much at stake in the development of the reading brain and in the quickening changes that now characterize its current evolving iterations" (2). 

On the importance of reading broadly, deeply, and keeping up your background knowledge:

"There is also a Matthew-Emerson Effect for background knowledge: those who have read widely and well will have many resources to apply to what they read; those who do not will have less basis for inference, deduction, and analogical thought and makes them ripe for falling prey to unadjudicated information, whether fake news or complete fabrications. Our young will not know what they do not know" (56, emphasis in original). 

The above also explains the presence of so many barely literate dumbasses who label as "fake news" anything they dislike, misunderstand, or disagree with. They just lack background resources to apply in their reading, if they even read at all. By the way, Matthew Effect refers to the concept by Merton. The Emerson part comes from his "The American Scholar" speech (Wikipedia entry;  actual text of the speech).  The Emerson quote the author mentions in the book as part of this context:

"When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant." 

Last thing we need, but we are getting more of anyhow, and not just young people:

". . .the last thing a society needs is what Socrates feared: young people thinking they know the truth before they ever begin to arduous practice of searching for it" (75).

Some disturbing reading issues for Black and Latino children:

"More disturbing altogether, close to half our children who are African-American or Latino do not read in grade four at even a 'basic' reading level, much less a proficient one. This means they do not decode well enough to understand what they are reading, which will impact almost everything they are supposed to learn from then on, including math and other subjects. I refer to this period as the 'vanishing hole in American education' because if children do not learn to read fluently before this time is over, for all educational purposes, they disappear. Indeed, along the way many of these children become dropouts with little hope of reaching anyone's dream when they grow up" (152). 

Naturally, the government plans ahead for those dropouts, including providing more business for certain private contractors. Well, not quite, but here is the quote first, then I will explain:

"The Bureau of Prisons in states across America know this well; many of them project the number of prison beds they will need in the future based on third- or fourth grade reading statistics" (152). 

Now, I admit that sounds pretty good. It sounds like the kind of thing the federal government would do. However, it turns out it is NOT true. The Atlantic ran an article back in 2012 debunking this idea, but they did remark that "it should be true." By the way, this was fairly easy for me to verify, so it irked me that the author was so casual about including the myth without verification. Did she not check? Did  she not have an editor or fact checker that could have alerted the author to the  error? It may seem like a small detail, but it does reduce the author's credibility. What other "facts" did she include that sound true but may not be?

Moving on, the Council on Foreign  Relations sums up the big issue for the United States. I'd say we have already reached this point. Just  look at the 2016 electoral results, though this has been building up since at least the Reagan years:

"Large, uneducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy" (152).

So how bad is it?

"Only a proficient reading level will ensure that an individual can go on to develop and apply the sophisticated reading skills that will maintain the intellectual, social, physical, and economic health of our country. Two-thirds or more of future US citizens are not even close" (152). 

Johnathan Kozol in his books says that putting money in schools does make a difference, contrary to what ignorant or selfish assholes often say. Wolf emphasizes the need to invest in education, especially early education. Americans can either choose to invest in educating all its children starting early, or they can keep building prisons while the rest of the world that does invest in education gets ahead and leave the U.S. behind.

"Simply put, the amount of money we invest in the first years of a child's life produces greater returns for each dollar spent than at any other time in the life span" (153). 

On the importance of deep reading:

"Deep reading is always about connection: connecting what we know to what we read, what we read to what we feel, what we feel to what we think, and how we think to how we live out our lives in a connected world" (163). 

Again, on why the undereducated are a problem:

"The atrophy and gradual disuse of our analytical and reflective capabilities as individuals are the worst enemies of a truly democratic society, for whatever reason, in whatever medium, in whatever age" (199). 

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