Our Bookless Future

Mark Bauerlein:

Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf had a surprise hit a dozen years ago, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007), a study of literacy’s role in the development of human cognition. But as she wrote the final sections, she realized the book had already become dated. The Digital Revolution had happened, and she was too buried in Sumerian scripts and Greek alphabets to notice. She felt like Rip van Winkle, she admits in her new book, Reader, Come Home, comprising nine companionable letters addressed to anybody interested in the value of reading. Here, Wolf uses the tools of neuroscience to examine what happened to reading in that transition from old print to new screens—“how the circuitry of the reading brain would be altered by the unique characteristics of the digital medium, particularly in the young.” Her focus is neither the reading mind, nor our tastes, knowledge, intelligence, or skills, but the physical organ inside our heads. Those other things are shaped by what our brains are able and disposed to do.

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Wolf begins with a genetic fact: “human beings were never born to read.” Literacy is an epigenetic achievement, extending our biological capacities for vision and language into a new “circuitry” that performs wondrous feats—not only the creation of masterpieces such as Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, which grabbed Wolf when she was young, but the capacity to imagine other selves and worlds, follow complex arguments, and acquire and store knowledge. She calls it “an unnatural cultural invention,” but it did more than transform oral cultures into print cultures. Literacy altered the human brain, making it “refit some of its existing neuronal groups” and “form newly recycled circuits.” The brain had to change because the innate brain can’t read. It responds to what it is exposed to if exposure happens often, for a long period. Literacy develops through practice—through labor that compels the development of revised brain functions. The more you read, the more your brain adapts. It is a “plastic” organ.