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Turning Pages: Why we need to read in a different way

Turning Pages: Why we need to read in a different way

Originally posted by Jane Sullivan @

We need a new kind of brain for reading. So says Maryanne Wolf, an Information Studies academic at UCLA. She is worried about the new norm of skim reading, which doesn't give us time "to grasp complexity, to understand another's feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader's own".

In a Guardian article, Wolf calls for a "bi-literate" reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. The good news is we can do it. Science and technology can help us identify what we will lose as well as what we will gain from the new digital normal: "there is as much reason for excitement as caution."

Certainly I share her caution. If you've used a smartphone to pick up any kind of text, you will know what she means by skim reading, and she cites research to show its negative effect on comprehension and empathy for both children and adults.

What does this mean for literature and the way we read it? Curiously, Wolf's words reminded me of my recent reading in the Sydney Review of Books: "Reading Is Not Shopping", novelist Charlotte Wood's thought-provoking speech to the 2018 Australian Literary Studies Convention.

At first sight, these two observers' concerns could not be more different. Wood isn't talking about digital reading or skim reading habits. Instead, she focuses on the book industry's seemingly benign collaboration with readers and what they want: provision and promotion of stories with characters that are "relatable" or "likeable"; questions for book groups; star ratings; "money back if you don't love it" offers, and so on.

The concerns converge when Wood analyses this as part of the explosion of consumer culture: "We've been slowly but thoroughly trained to see the world in terms of its capacity to please us." And nobody is immune: she gives her own personal example in the world of art, of being forced to reconsider paintings she just doesn't get and doesn't like.

Something dangerous is taking place in the literary world, she warns. "Nowhere have I been asked to rate anything on its capacity to make me uncomfortable, to unnerve or challenge or confuse me." She believes "reader satisfaction" is code for smoothing out lumps and bumps of every kind. These lumps and bumps in a novel might include bad things happening to animals; or characters behaving badly; or ambiguous, mysterious characters the reader can't pin down.

I'm not sure Wood's analysis applies to all commercial reading because some genres seem designed to make readers uncomfortable: thrillers, or horror, or misery memoirs. But even in those cases there is usually reassurance at the end: the villain is caught and punished, the memoirist survives and exorcises childhood traumas.

There is still a reading community that lauds "difficult" books, but it's small and shrinking, says Wood. What response might there have been to works such as Alexis Wright's Carpentaria, or George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, or Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton, if they'd been first novels by unknown writers?

So both Wood and Wolf, in different fields and different ways, are arguing for a refinement of our reading habits. This will inevitably sometimes make reading harder and more challenging, and maybe even more upsetting, but that can be a good thing.

Wolf argues that deep and thoughtful reading will encourage empathy, but even that concept makes Wood suspicious. What we urgently need instead of empathy, she says, is what writer Sarah Sentilles calls "the embrace of unknowable otherness". That sounds exciting: I'd like to read about it.

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