Maryanne Wolf: Deep Reading

interview by Andrea Hiott, 2009

Contrary to popular belief, Maryanne Wolf is not against new technology. Ms. Wolf, the somewhat controversial author of Proust and the Squid, merely wants us to be careful. Technology is a convenience we need not relinquish, she says. Still, sometimes in our rush to jump from desire to fulfillment, we miss the very thing we are looking for in the first place — the meaning.

Reading deeply does not mean being miserable. Quite the opposite: it means deepening one’s capacity for pleasure. Reading has implications on our brains that result in the ways we see and navigate our world, ultimately opening our lives to a richness and quality hard to quantify in charts or graphs. Wolf‘s work ultimately asks us to slow down long enough to realize this immense gift we‘ve developed, and thus to strengthen this capacity within our brains, rather than to become lazy and let it go.

Pulse: Why do you think some people have difficulty agreeing with your book, even as they feel compelled to discuss it?

Maryanne Wolf: Part of the reason people don’t always understand what I’m trying to say in the book is because of the tendency to think in a binary way of “either/or” rather than with the complexity that is the nature of knowledge. A complex way of thinking that holds both the “either” and the “or” at the same time has always been a necessary part of arriving at any real knowledge, but now that our awareness is expanding, this is an absolutely essential idea in a way it never was before.

You mean that to be able to see both sides of any issue without judging either of them has indeed become almost an urgent skill for us now? It’s not a new idea. I think of Emerson when he says…

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Right. Or think of F. Scott Fitzgerald who says, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I think that expresses very well one of the things that in academic life I’m always butting my head against. We deal with contradictory pieces of information all the time and we must navigate our own intellectual vessel through those contradictions rather than only go with the maelstrom.

Like how you say our brains were never made to read, and yet reading has become one of the most important things. How has reading changed, or how is it changing, our brains?

Our brain has beautiful genetic programs for all the basic organs of the body and for our basic structures which organize how we receive information and how we organize it. When I say basic structures, I mean things like vision, memory, auditory processes, and language – it’s all in there. But there’s nothing in there for reading. There’s not a gene and there’s not an organ. Instead, what you have in the brain is this miraculous capacity to take those older structures and create a new circuit, a new pathway, which results in reading.

So parts of our brain are communicating with other parts in new ways?

No matter what you do, both sides of your brain are communicating. I’ll use music as an example. When you deal with music you are using some aspects (she hums a little tune called Ode to Joy). When I first started whistling just then, you were using your right hemisphere because it was just a fun thing, you were just listening to a whistle. But then very quickly you heard the melody, and with that you started trying to place it, and then there were associations, maybe “Berlin”, then “Beethoven”, then “Ode to Joy, 9th Symphony” – and with such association, you were using your left hemisphere. So all of this information is easily integrated even in the act of listening to just a simple thing like a whistle. With reading, you use the left and the right for a few milliseconds because the right hemisphere visual sends it across to the left hemisphere and that connects it up with language and then, once you have become a fluent reader, there are many different parts of your brain being activated at the same time.

Can our brains create new neurons? Can we change our brains not only by establishing new connections between existing neurons but also by having totally new ones come into play?

Yes. It’s true. When I was going to school, it was considered impossible to create new neurons but we now know that isn’t true. One of my friends was very involved in work on the hippocampus which is a part of the brain that is heavily involved in memory and they suddenly found ‘oh my god the hippocampus is getting new neurons, this is not possible’ and of course that was the beginning of our understanding of how changeable the brain really can be.

Can we do this consciously yet? Can we consciously change our brain?

Everything changes your brain, but that’s different from neurons being developed. So you can change your brain in all kinds of ways when it comes to neural pathways between existing neurons. A five-year-olds brain when its first beginning to read and getting all this information is sort of firing in all directions – it doesn’t know what to use so it uses all these different parts at first — but as it goes along and gets better and fluent, things become automatic and certain paths get put down in the brain. Soon, it uses less to produce more. The important thing to understand is: once it is pruned, there’s actually even more comprehension.

Is that what you mean when you say that the most important contribution of reading is that it provides us with more time?

That’s it. When we are children, it takes us a very long time to decode a word. You might have one image that goes with various sounds, but basically you’re using a lot of brain activity to get that image. You haven’t gotten to that rich semantic process where “bat” can have multiple meanings. But let’s say you’re nine or ten and you’ve done some of this pruning so that now you have this basic idea of “bat” decoded. Well now you have time to comprehend all the other ways this word can be used – it’s multiple definitions, its ability to be both a noun or a verb, to become Batwoman or Batman or whatever. You begin to have time to connect all the variations of that word and then you can use it in a sentence and connect it to prior experiences and knowledge: in essence, you now have time to think. If you don’t have to think, you will not be able to proceed. And that’s a very basic problem with digital. It’s not that you don’t have the potential to have time, but it’s that the medium itself prevents you from using that time to think. There’s so much passivity that goes on because you’re receiving so much that you don’t actually pause and use those extra milliseconds for the richness that would otherwise become a part of the brain, as it does in traditional reading.

So it’s not a matter of not using the technology; rather, it‘s a matter of using it in a way that still allows for resonance. It’s about being aware enough to appreciate the experience itself.

Right. Being aware enough to notice the rest of the picture. And “the rest of the picture”, as you read, becomes what’s activated from that point on. So let’s just go back to “bat”: If you learn all this stuff about “bat”, every time you read that word, it’s all activated. So that means that it’s additive, it’s this cumulative brain that just keeps adding associations. Reading literally enriches the brain and that’s why there’s this paradox, this thing that requires you to hold to opposing ideas at once – it both prunes and makes you more knowledgeable and faster. It makes you faster for the purpose of richness, so that you have the time to bring together all the things you know about whatever the word or subject might be. When this happens, every time that part of your brain is activated, you get this extraordinary, embroidered, complex of association around any concept or word.

Can time in the sense that you use it be the same thing as awareness, so that you’re not only thinking, you’re also thinking about thinking? Does it give you the space to be aware of your thoughts? Is that part of learning as well?

In the sense of attention, focusing the attention, yes. Awareness is similar but I’ll use “attention” because it’s more cognitively precise in my research world. Time allows you the ability to focus your attention more broadly or more deeply or more narrowly and what you do with it is in some ways reliant on the medium. If the medium like a book permits and even invites you to go even more deeply, then that actually invites deeper contemplative processes. If the medium, like my computer, invites me to speed up, I’ll somehow end up focusing less deeply. My attention is then being drawn very quickly to the next and then the next and then the next.

Maybe I’m not expressing this clearly but what I mean is the difference between „having your attention taken by something“ and „being aware of what your attention is on“.

I see. Interesting.

Because then it makes sense for me when I hear you say that you want to get people to think about how the expectation of the medium affects the quality of their days or lives.

Technologies are like anything else. They’re a tool, and they can be used for good or for bad. I’m saying: we must understand more about the tool than we do right now.

You want us to take the time to understand the relationship between thought and technology rather than just –

To lurch. We tend to lurch into these things. My hope is that we will take the time necessary to think through the implications of what each medium promotes and fosters and threatens. I think where we are now is kind of a dangerous moment in time because we have it within us to be very thoughtful. And the capacity for just the opposite. Because of the research I do on the preciousness of the reading brain, I smell a great threat and I want to alert everyone to the possibility for good and ill when it comes to this precious commodity, reading, and our new digital culture.

I don’t think we can live without the arts, and without what I think “reading” for you represents. It’s how we learn what is possible. I think everyone knows this but doesn’t think about it. You’re trying to get us to think about it. This is necessary. And I understand your worry, but I don’t think these things can go away. Change, yes, but not disappear.

I hope you’re right. But I will say that I was unpleasantly shocked when I read the Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making Us Stupid? In that article, the writer used part of my book as well as an interview with me in which I called all these processes “deep reading” processes. He used this term “deep reading” in his article. As a result, the encyclopedia Britannica had a Blog on this topic and people wrote things like “Who cares about War and Peace? Who cares about Tolstoy? This is too long and we don’t need it. It’s boring.” So the kinds of responses to these questions were more often than I would ever have believed possible, reductionistic, a thought bite and sound bite mentality and not appreciating what you are now saying about how important art and writing are for our culture. I could not agree with you more. That’s what I believe too. But I’m seeing evidence that a portion of society that believes that it can get along very well without it.

Point taken. But I would suggest that it’s actually not that the idea that we’ve just expressed that has changed but rather the sources. Young people still need books, they still crave stories. Think Harry Potter. Think Twilight. Now this isn’t exactly heady stuff. But there’s heady stuff out there too. And some of the heady stuff of the past wasn’t considered so heady either when it first came out.

It’s very true. There’s a lot of it there. My question though, is whether the richness that we talked about in the beginning of the interview is being reduced.

It‘s true we can get so caught up in wanting the next hit, the next high or the next stimulating point, so that we have no idea what we’re really reading or experiencing at all. That’s one level. The level I think you say is dangerous. But then there’s another way to live today, too, isn‘t there? We can step back and see all this in a wider way and then anything that comes in can be read quite deeply, can‘t it? Harry Potter or War and Peace.

That‘s true. But about whom is that true? And is the percentage for whom that’s true narrowing in our societies? I have been accused in this whole discussion of being an elitist. On these radio shows and whatever, people say to me “Well you’re talking about a very small percentage of the population and who cares because these people will always be reading these books” and my evolving response to that is: I’m really wanting the next generation to be better than us. I’m not thinking about percentages. I’m thinking about the young. I’m thinking of how we can develop more and more of the potential of more and more of the young. So to talk about elitism is merely missing the point. I want the best for every person and that means a lot of diversity. When when people talk about deep reading being possible in these other forms such as graphic novels, I can understand. My son Ben (who is dyslexic) is an artist and for him, the narrative is visual. He and I couldn’t be more different. He is a product of a beautiful feature of human species and organization which has diverse brain organization possibilities. I think the digital and literate cultures reflect some of that diversity. And what I don’t want to have is some of that diversity thrown to the side or discarded.

Do you ever think when people tell you things like “your views are elitist” that it’s coming from fear? The same fear that we’ve always had, that we’re not smart enough or that because we haven’t read all these classic books we’re somehow unworthy? If they really understood what you meant by “deep reading” they would probably feel a real sense of common purpose with you on it.

Right. It’s probably not that the things we want are different, we’re just speaking different languages. If I were to really sit and talk with them, it might come out. If I were to ask them what they truly want for their children. They would want their children to experience the fullness and the richness that is possible in life. I think what you’re also expressing is the fact that there are anti-intellectual forces always about and that’s part of the diversity but I would just want to talk to the person who seems anti-intellectual and eliminate the fear factor or the inferiority factor and just try to make it clear that we could all work together to make the best for the next generation. That’s the point.

photo credit: Tufts University