The Reading Brain

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The Reading Brain

...and How Digital Media Is Rewiring It

How is your experience reading these words different than if you were reading them on paper? In what ways does the printed wordand in particular, book readingalter the mind and human culture? How is digital media rewiring the brain and changing the way we think, imagine, and experience life? These are the kinds of questions the books below explore through perspectives from neuroscience, history, linguistics, media studies, literature, and personal stories. Ultimately these books illuminate what is lost through wholesale digital immersion and reaffirm the value of book reading.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and the Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

Reading is a relatively recent human invention, emerging in some cultures only in the past several thousand years. How does the human brain, whose biological structure evolved over a much longer time frame, adapt to be able to read and write? Cognitive neuroscientist and child development professor Maryanne Wolf explores this question by looking not only at the development of writing and reading over the course of human history, but also over a child's life. In the process she also examines the puzzle of dyslexia—how the dyslexic brain is different and why individuals with dyslexia often have extraordinary abilities alongside reading difficulties. An insightful weaving of neuroscience, history, linguistics, child development, and literary quotations, this book both celebrates the reading brain and expresses concern over the digital brain that is displacing it.

Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age by Sven Birkerts

The rapid growth of digital technology over the past couple decades has infiltrated many aspects of daily life in our society. While Sven Birkerts resists some of these technological changes—for example, refusing to own a cell phone and continuing to listen to vinyl records, as an editor of a literary journal he has reluctantly adopted others—email, Twitter, and online reading. In this essay collection he reflects on the changes he has noticed both in himself and others: the greater difficulty in acts of sustained attention, the distraction induced by online reading, the emphasis on instant data over insight, the loss of personal agency, and the struggle to deeply engage in art. Most fundamentally, he worries how these changes interfere with our inner life, which needs time and space for quiet contemplation where imagination can flourish. To regain some of what we are losing, he eloquently makes a case for taking sufficient pauses in our digitally connected lives to read literature.

I too harbor concerns on how our sense of self and capacity for imagination are changing with increasing digital connectivity, but I often find it difficult to fully verbalize my sentiments. The pervasive messages of digital media marketing, focusing exclusively on benefits, can drown out independent voices deeply exploring the ramifications. I welcomed Sven Birkerts' ability to articulate what I've struggled to express, something the depth of a book—not a Twitter message—makes possible.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

I commonly hear the assertion that a technology is merely a neutral tool; what it's used for determines its effects. Nicholas Carr disagrees with this assumption. In this book he explores how the Internet medium, regardless of its content, is changing our brain physiology.

Carr begins with an intellectual journey into the cultural history of Western civilization to show how earlier adopted technologies changed human minds as people used them. Writing, the map, the mechanical clock, and the printed word, he argues, each carried an "intellectual ethic"—an often unconscious set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence. During the last 550 years since the advent of the printing press, the book has served to focus our attention, promoting deep and complex thought.  

In contrast to the book, Carr claims the Internet seizes our attention only to scatter it. While Carr's and others' personal experiences alone attest to this phenomenon, he advances his argument by documenting neurological research that clearly show how our neural pathways are rerouted as we use the Internet. While we are becoming more skilled at quick data retrieval and multi-tasking, the cognitive makeup that allowed for deep contemplation, to traverse a lengthy narrative or a complex argument, is weakening. At one point he digresses into an interesting reflection on how the extent to which he was connected to the Internet interfered with his concentration writing this book.
Carr leaves it up to readers to reflect on what to do with this understanding. For me, his book inspired me to further limit my time online and spend more time doing activities that involve deep concentration. 
The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter In a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin

In this essay, a mix of memoir and criticism, book critic David L. Ulin explores the myriad ways book reading has influenced his life. However, despite living in an apartment full of books and a lifelong devotion to books, he has recently noticed his trouble sitting down to read. To read, he says, we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise and sustain concentration. Immersion in books is becoming increasingly difficult as we spend more time digitally connected.

This problem became especially apparent to him throughout 2008, when he almost constantly checked online news and analysis of the presidential election. Those of us who continually follow the political drama of the 2016 election season can likely relate to his experience, regardless of whether our political worldview matches his. Online news articles (and comments), video clips, and social media blurbs often lack depth. We also are more likely to scan than read them, then become distracted by links to other sites. Deep reading and reflection, he argues, counters the shallow mindset induced by quick online media consumption. Books, particularly history or fiction, can provide a richer narrative context and foster deeper insight into the political theater of the day.

Ulin encourages us to make time for reading, which he says is "an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage."

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man by Marshall McLuhan; with new essays by W. Terrence Gordon, Elena Lamberti, and Dominique Scheffel-Dunand.

Most of the above authors mention the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan. This book mostly focuses on the shift from orality to literacy in Western society. McLuhan explores how the technology of writing and later the printed word alter human thought and culture, with special attention to cultures that use the phonetic alphabet. Although writing over 50 years ago on the cusp of widespread proliferation of electronic media, he also offers insights into how electronic media reshapes literate cultures. 

McLuhan rejects a typical chapter format with introduction, body, and conclusion. Instead he uses a non-linear "mosaic" format that consists of 295 maxims
—provocative and often paradoxical statementsfollowed by discussions that include many references to cultural history, the arts, literary quotations and poetry. His discussions act as probes rather than statements of facts, inviting the reader to explore an idea further and participate in the interpretation. Initially readers may falsely conclude he is critical of the printed word. However, this is a simplistic assessment as McLuhan was greatly influenced by literary works; he merely wanted the print medium to achieve its full potential. Indeed mid-way into the book he expresses this point, also relevant in today's discussions on digital media: "The theme of this book is not that there is anything good or bad about print but that the unconsciousness of the effect of any force is a disaster, especially a force that we have made ourselves."

I recommend this book to readers who want to delve further into this topic, although its complex vocabulary and writing style make it a slower and more demanding read than the above books. When I read it, it often took me an hour to read just ten pages.