At the start of last year, I borrowed a book from the library called Stop Staring at Screens. Whilst it was a perfectly passable book, it wasn’t exactly the thing I’d been hoping for.
At the time, I wrote: I checked this out with a view to learning why my youngest child is so absolutely smitten by anything with flashing lights. This book definitely doesn’t do that…
But Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf does, and a lot more besides.
Honestly, I’m so excited to talk about this book that I sort of don’t know where to start, so I’ll just begin where I begin and hope I’m not too incoherent.
Wolf began life as a school teacher, but became fascinated by the way children learn to read. This led her back to university to study the neuroscience of literacy – mapping out how our brains manage this incredible feat. The ability to read is something I’ve completely taken for granted until now, but seeing how many amazing things happen every time we look at a sentence really opened my eyes. It’s a skill I’m going to actively take the time to appreciate from now on!
I’ve always been an avid reader – save for a small period of time after my eldest was born, during which I had postnatal depression* – so I’ve felt the importance of books for years, but I’ve never been able to articulate why they’re incredible until now. Books can teach us empathy, Theory of Mind, critical thinking, and patience. And whilst they can’t provide the video tutorials of YouTube, they can offer a physical, tangible form of knowledge.
From an environmental perspective, this book is really important. Without studies like these, we can’t hope to understand what it is about our current technology which makes us so addicted to it, and until we can begin to look at why we’re using it in the way we are, we can’t begin to change our relationship with it – whether that’s how we utilise our phones, our laptops, or our televisions. I especially liked that Wolf encourages biliteracy – a proficiency in printed words as well as those on screen. She advocates that technology and digital reading are important tools, but stresses that…
“A flotsam of distraction and information […] will never become knowledge.”
Since reading this book, I’ve made a conscious effort to change my habits regarding the internet and the things I read online. I’ve turned off various messaging services and though I shut down my social media for other reasons, the lack of notifications definitely helps to keep my focus firmly where it should be – on the text that I’m reading. Again, for other reasons, I’m turning my internet connection off at 9pm every night, but this helps with the quality of information that I’m taking on board too. Sitting and properly reading and absorbing a book is far more rewarding that skimming past a stream of information.
And the more we know, the more in control we can be. The less time we spend online, the more time we can spend in the world, enjoying it. The internet is a wonderful tool if used properly, but it can also be a tool for those trying sell us things we don’t actually need. By making sure that we’re the ones in charge of the time we spend online, we’re less likely to fall victim to how the internet can be used against us – as a means to encourage overconsumption and feelings of inadequacy.
By return to our reading roots, we can foster feelings of empathy and our Theory of Mind – the part of ourselves which helps us understand that though we’re happy, there are people in the world who aren’t. By reading more, we hone our abilities to think critically and fight the misinformation out there. And if we can do that, we’re well on our way to making the world a better place.
Full disclosure: I actually put off reading this book for the longest time because it was written by someone with such specialist knowledge, however this is where the fact that Wolf is a former teacher really makes a difference. The way the (sometimes incredibly complex) information is conveyed is done so beautifully – even poetically in places.
Don’t feel like this book is beyond you, as I did for so long. It’s absolutely not. I pass on the vast majority of the books I read, but this is one which is going to stay firmly on my shelf so that I can come back to it again and again.
Have you read Reader, Come Home? If you have, I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts. You can get in touch via the comments below.
*I still read a lot but I read to my baby – childhood favourites like Beatrix Potter, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Black Beauty. It took a long time before I was ready to tackle any adult books again.