Reading taught us to sustain and logically develop ideas

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2023

Reading as we know it is engaged in an epic battle it has all but lost, Doug Lemov argues:

No matter where you are, Device is there with you, stowed in your pocket, at your behest, chirping away pleasantly. Check in with a colleague or the kids? Play Candy Crush? Find a baseball score? All while in line at Target or sitting through the 10 a.m. strategy meeting? Of course, Master. It would be my pleasure.

Suddenly Device must always be with you. You check it 150 to 200 times a day, studies tell us. You switch media sources (for instance, from Web browser to email) 27 times an hour. Your average duration of sustained focus on any digital task is just over two minutes.

Clever Device! Once it was the servant; now it is the master.

Poor Dickens. Poor Toni Morrison. They cannot compete with that. So we read less and less. But more importantly, we read differently. This is the subject of Maryanne Wolf’s profound new book, Reader, Come Home.

On the digital screen we read fleetingly, flittingly. Our brains have what scientists call “novelty bias.” We are predisposed to attend to new information; from an evolutionary perspective, what’s new, bright, and flashing could contain survival information. It gets priority. Reading on screens sets up a cycle of expectation and gratification. We are repeatedly distracted by whatever pops up, rewarded for each distraction with a tiny surge of dopamine. This attraction to “the new” crowds out reflection, creative association, critical analysis, empathy—the keys to what Wolf calls the “deep reading process.” We read in a constant state of partial attention. And, Wolf points out, this is as much cause as effect. Human beings developed the capacity to read relatively recently, over the past 5,000 years or so. The brain has no reading center. Rather, when we learn to read, we call upon multiple areas of the brain, exhibiting a cognitive quality known as neuroplasticity.


We made ourselves modern via a collective rewiring when writing and later print emerged and spread across vast strata of society not so long ago. Reading taught us to sustain and logically develop ideas, to enter the minds and perspectives of others through their words. As societies, we became less impulsive, violent, and irrational. Wolf quotes Nicolo Machiavelli reflecting on how he lost himself in a book, conducting an inner dialogue with the author and reading for four hours without interruption. When was the last time you did that?


  1. Faze says:

    “Poor Dickens. Poor Toni Morrison.”

    At least he didn’t put them in the same sentence.

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    While I don’t regard evolution as fact, given the steady decrease in the ability to maintain attention and focus, the consequences will be devastating. Instant gratification doesn’t build or strengthen civilizations. We are slowly returning to the mean existence of humans over the millenia… nasty, brutish and short. Tribal.

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