Maryanne Wolf is a UCLA professor and the renowned author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain and Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. She says deep reading makes you a better thinker, communicator, and citizen. But what happens if you lose the ability to read slowly, patiently, and critically? Is there anything you can do to get it back?
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On deep reading.
Rufus Griscom: We tend to think of reading as a singular activity, but in fact there are many levels, or degrees of depth, of reading. Can you tell us about deep reading and the miraculous beauty of what happens in the brain when we read deeply?
Maryanne Wolf: I’m so glad you asked that question. It all comes back to the fact that when we learn to read, we make this most basic circuit that connects visual and linguistic areas with cognitive areas and then affective areas as we elaborate over time.
Over time, we begin to connect all that we know—our background knowledge—and use analogical reasoning to compare it to whatever new text or new information we’re getting. And there’s a kind of frontal lobe dance, if you will, that’s going on between what we know and what we’re encountering.
We are using deduction and induction. We’re making inferences. Is this true or is this misinformation or, worst of all these days, disinformation? We have the ability, through these deep reading processes, to add our own background knowledge, to make a critical analysis of what is read.
“There’s a kind of frontal lobe dance, if you will, that’s going on between what we know and what we’re encountering.”
There may be little more important for a democracy than to have truly critical analytic citizens. So when we citizens of a society read something, do we deploy those very important deep reading processes that give us the ability to discern the truth and attempt to understand the thoughts and feelings of others?
Rufus: I was so moved by the quote you have in the book from Barack Obama in his conversation with Marilyn Robinson in which he talks about what he’s learned about being a citizen from novels. Obama said, “It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth to be found.”
Why the novel is superior to film.
Rufus: It does feel like novels, in particular, are extraordinary empathy exercises, more so than maybe any other medium.
Maryanne: I can’t agree with you more. And I say that from the standpoint of someone who loves film. But the novel gives us a chance to pause in the moment where the film, the screen, is always rushing us along into the next thought, the next scene. But the novel allows us to pause in the midst of that character’s feelings and to experience and identify it like few other experiences.
Speed isn’t illumination.
Rufus: In the 1980s, when I was in high school, my parents put me in a speed reading class. They thought this would be good for me, right? And it was kind of interesting because you would actually find that you could skim very quickly. But I later had to unlearn the habit because I realized, like, Wait a second. What is the objective here? Is the objective just to get the gist of the information? Or are you trying to fully absorb and interact with it? Are you trying to let the words marinate?
This particular kind of reading is a form of learning that is really critical to developing human beings who can think critically and empathetically. We need this for our society. We want this for our children. And there’s evidence that our ability to do this is eroding.
Maryanne: Yes it is, unfortunately. The largest meta-analysis that’s ever been done has been a compilation of over 50 studies in which, from the year 2000 to the year 2017, they simply looked at any study that had a comparison of the same story or text in the two mediums, print and screen, and then asked comprehension questions that got at: did the person understand the plot, the sequence of details, etc. And the results showed, incredibly, that print was truly superior for that kind of comprehension.
“But what we have done is absolutely skipped beauty.”
There is this unquestioned assumption that speed, I think David Ulin said this, is illumination. When speed is actually often skipping to the gist of the information, which is all we need in a lot of things that we do, like email. But what we have done is absolutely skipped beauty. We have skipped the elaboration, the historical elaboration of arguments that led to this particular viewpoint. We have skipped the details that might even in some novels portray the very resolution of the mystery the whole work had been building towards.
Is the podcast reminiscent of the Socratic courtyard?
Rufus: There are a few areas of hopefulness that I see when I look out into the world. One of them actually is the world of podcasting. I see podcasting culture as really quite reminiscent of the Socratic courtyard. We had a wonderful conversation with Annie Murphy Paul, who wrote a great book called The Extended Mind in which she cited fascinating research by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber showing that when we think individually, we have these cognitive blind spots, like confirmation bias. We’re basically we’re very good at convincing ourselves of what we want to believe when we are thinking in isolation. But we are much better at being critical thinkers when interacting with others. And so when we think in groups, we are much less susceptible to these kind of biases. So this push and pull of people having dialogue and listening to others — I think there are probably quite a few people, maybe some listeners, for whom podcasts have replaced some amount of reading. And I would argue that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Maryanne: I can’t agree with you more. And I love the analogy. It’s so exciting and hopeful to think that we are making these various courtyards available to people. I do, however, differ from the idea. The podcast can be an amplification of what was written, but, you see, the act of writing itself is so generative. We have to use written language to propel our own thoughts. And I will say that is irreplaceable by any other genre, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be complimented by podcasts. I think podcasts will not, in my mind, replace either the writing or the reading of books.
Edited and condensed for clarity.
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