The rereading test

How our digital reading is influencing the way we absorb books

August 26, 2018 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Illustration of Ebook Flat Circle Icon

Illustration of Ebook Flat Circle Icon

Last week, former U.S. President Barack Obama shared his summer reading list in a Facebook post: Tara Westover’s Educated , a memoir of scholastic achievement; Warlight, Booker Prize-winning writer Michael Ondaatje’s new novel; the novel An American Marriage by Tayari Jones; Medicins Sans Frontieres co-founder Hans Rosling’s posthumously published Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World— and Why Things Are Better Than You Think ; and V.S. Naipaul’s early novel, A House for Mr Biswas .

Capacity for deep reading

Obama did not mention Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf. But he could well have been summing up her nuanced argument when he recapped his seasonal list: “This summer I’ve been absorbed by new novels, revisited an old classic [A House for Mr Biswas ], and reaffirmed my faith in our ability to move forward together when we seek the truth.” In her new book, Wolf, an American educator who has extensively studied the science of the reading brain, frames our growing incapacity for deep reading. She preforms an experiment in rereading an old favourite to track changes in her own reading style and, in a mirror to the last part of Obama’s recap, explains how our ability to be “good readers” is intimately connected to our ability to reflect, weigh the credibility of information that we are bombarded with across platforms, form our own opinions, and ultimately strengthen democracy.

Or, as she puts it: “I could never have imagined that research about the changes in the reading brain, most of which reflect increasing adaptations to a digital culture, would have implications for a democratic society... We will fail as a society if we do not educate our children and re-educate all of our citizenry to the responsibility of each citizen to process information vigilantly, critically, and wisely across media.”

It is not just that social media, games, smartphones, the ease of flitting between windows, and calling up any song or video instantly are keeping us ever more distracted and lost for time for reflection and deep reading; it is that reading digitally is in itself changing the way we read print. Wolf writes: “There is a very old concept called a set in psychological research that helps explain the less linear, less sequenced, and potentially less nuanced ways many of us are now reading, regardless of medium. When we read for hours on a screen whose characteristics involve a rapid speed of information processing, we develop an unconscious set toward reading based on how we read during most of our digital-based hours. If most of these hours involve reading on the distraction-saturated Internet, where sequential thinking is less important and less used, we begin to read that way when we turn off the screen and pick up a book or newspaper.”

Wolf recommends a way to avert this “bleeding over” effect among children. She bases it on a speed task she had designed to diagnose dyslexia, where a person has to switch between 50 well-known items in different categories (“letters, numbers and colours”) as fast as possible. An unforeseen finding was that bilingual people did better than those who were monolingual. She similarly suggests that children be made ‘fluent’ in print and digital separately, so they internalise a distinction between the two and do not carry their digital reading manner to print. Being an educator, Wolf has detailed suggestions on this, including exposing children to coding so that they “learn how to create and express themselves with the computer, rather than just interact with software created by others”, as an MIT Media Lab team put it. These studies should be prompts for policymakers to think more innovatively while designing the curriculum and funding education to ensure access to all children. But they should also alert older readers to be more mindful in observing their digital and print reading patterns.

Back to basics

For instance, Wolf tested a “null hypothesis” that as far as she herself was concerned, it was not her reading style that had changed, but just that she was simply lacking time. She decided to go back to a “linguistically difficult, conceptually demanding novel” that she had read earlier, presumably in a pre-digital time, to map the difference in the reading experience. She settled on Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi , a book that had influenced her a lot and had been cited by the Nobel Committee while awarding him the literature prize in 1946. What could go wrong? Among other things, she struggled to navigate through the opaque style, she found she could not slow down her reading speed, and: “Finally, I wondered how on earth I had ever thought that this was one of the greatest twentieth-century novels, Hesse’s Nobel Prize notwithstanding.” Still, she forced herself to carry on, but this time in concentrated 20-minute capsules, and eventually her reading pace came down.

So go locate the toughest book you once read and loved, and try the Wolf rereading test.

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