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As we all spend more time scanning websites and email, we seem to have less patience for longer articles and books. But new research says skimming short items online may actually be changing our brain’s ability to digest dense, long-form writing. We consider how technology is changing our reading brains and how we might strike a balance between different types of reading at different ages.
- Jamie Locke VP of Operations, Spritz
- Maureen Corrigan Critic in Residence and Lecturer in the Department of English, Georgetown University; book critic, NPR's Fresh Air; author, 'Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading!'
- Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading and Language Research and John DiBaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University; Author, "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain"
A Look At The Technology
Watch the demo below for a walk-through of the new technology from Boston-based startup Spritz.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Remember, as a young undergrad student, getting lost in long, heavy novels, the kind written centuries before you were born, the likes of which helped you shape your world view? Maybe you picked one of your favorites up to reread recently, but found it difficult to focus while on the Metro, what with the jostling of the train and muffled announcements. And when you got home and settled in to read in your favorite chair, you remembered you had to send one last work email.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThen there was Facebook to check, and then dinner to have. After hours, you return to the paperback, only to have your mind wander despite the quiet. Finally, giving up and watching a "Law and Order" rerun instead. If that scenario sounds familiar, you're not alone. Research shows that our brain's ability to focus on dense, weighty tomes is being derailed by the kind of short, skimming reading many of us spend our days doing on screens. Here to talk about what we can do about this, is Maureen Corrigan. She is critic in residence and the lecturer in the Department of English at Georgetown University.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe's also book critic for NPR's Fresh Air and author of the literary memoir, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading!" She joins us in our Washington studio. Maureen Corrigan, thank you for joining us.
MS. MAUREEN CORRIGANThank you, Kojo. I'm happy to be here.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios in Boston is Maryanne Wolf. She is the John DiBaggio professor of citizenship and public service and the director for the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. She's the author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." Maryanne Wolf, thank you for joining us.
MS. MARYANNE WOLFThank you for inviting me again. It's a pleasure.
NNAMDIIt is a pleasure on our part, too. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Have you found that your ability to focus on long-form literature or text has waned? Tell us what you've done about it, if so. 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Maryanne, let's start with how our brains develop and retain the ability to read, a skill that must be learned in the first place. How do we learn and what factors do we see affecting our ability to really focus on a text through the course of our lives?
WOLFWell, Kojo, one of the most amazing aspects of reading is that the species never had it genetically endowed. It's something that we literally form through childhood experience and teaching. And it's a plastic circuit, so it's almost like a reflection of the brain's ability to learn something new. Now, that's very wonderful that we have that kind of plasticity. But it carries certain disadvantages too. That means there's no, only one reading circuit. We build it with many component parts. And it's very affected by things like a writing system.
WOLFA Chinese reading brain is different from an English-alphabet reading brain. But it also means it's affected by the mode of reading. So we can read very superficially and use only parts of the components in that circuit. Or we can have a full-fledged, very serious and what I would call a deep reading experience, in which we use all the components available in that circuit. And we go beyond the information to connect the text with what are ultimately our best thoughts. So that's the sort of enriched circuitry that we all hope that children develop and that we use.
WOLFBut digital reading seems to cause people like me to worry that we are endangering -- not so much losing in adulthood -- but atrophying some of those very important parts of the circuit. Now there's a second worry, which is a far more important one to me, and that is, will that also mean that children form a less fully developed circuit if they are spending most of their time on digital devices? So we've got two really big questions from a cognitive neurosciency point. Will we be able to form this rather extraordinary circuit that you and I use?
WOLFAnd will you and I atrophy parts of the circuit because we are so accustomed to using this more short-circuited mode?
NNAMDISo for -- when we're talking about children, whose reading brain circuit is not fully formed, training that circuit, in your view, requires gradually acquiring deep-reading skills by reading material on the page?
WOLFHere is the real question that no one has the answer to. I believe we can learn on any medium. But I also believe that a medium can redress its own weaknesses. If I have a choice, I would always say that the advantages of beginning with print and books carries so much that we can't even calculate in our ways of studying. But that doesn't mean that children, for example the children that I'm literally working with in Ethiopia, can't learn on a tablet. They can. The question is, what will enhance the development of those deep-reading skills?
WOLFAnd in one instance, if there are no books, can we have the medium redress its own weaknesses? And the other, can we have a developmentally sequenced view in which we develop in our children biliterate brains?
NNAMDIMaryanne, Michael Rosenwald recently wrote in the Washington Post about this issue of attention span and how technology is changing, in a sense, how we read. He cited you in it. You had written about and in fact joined us to talk about it in 2007, when your book, "Proust and the Squid," was published. It made a splash then, but given the reaction to this article, why do you think it's striking such a nerve now?
WOLFDo you know, Kojo, it was so wonderful to come on your program, because I remember that you were one of the people who were most interested in this question. And the reality is that it actually fell like a thud, that question, for a while. And then, I think, people had to encounter their own experiences of change, their own lack of patience as they reencountered books that they had once loved, but now literally have no patience for. And that includes those beautiful 19th century, turn-of-century novels that, just as you said at the start of the program, helped form how we think about life.
NNAMDIEven after generating a lot of feedback, the Post put up a chart showing how far online readers made it into the article. Thirty-one percent -- all of 31 percent made it to the end. What do you make of that statistic, Maryanne?
WOLFI think it's such a beautiful irony. I just loved it. Only 31 percent of the people who wanted to read about serious reading were, in fact, serious enough to read to the end, which, to me, it's testimony itself. It's like proof of concept.
NNAMDIExactly right. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you have comments or questions for us. Do you strictly do certain kinds of reading on tech devices and other types in hard copy only? Tell us which and why, if so. 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Maureen Corrigan, one of your specialties at Georgetown is 19th century British literature, which is not known, well, for its brevity. What changes have you noted in, oh, the last decade or two, about how well students do with those texts?
CORRIGANWell, one thing I've notices is that I have to give my students more time to get through the novels. Years and years and years ago, I assigned a novel by Robert Tressell called "The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists." It's about a group of house painters in late 19th-century England. And the novel is a great novel about work -- everyday work. Chapter after chapter, you hear about these guys spackling and scraping and painting. It's 700 pages. In the olden days, I would have given the students two weeks to finish that novel.
CORRIGANTwice as long. Now, I don't think that's because, you know, they're any less smart than the students I had 20 or so years ago. I think they've got more demands on their time. And, you know, I'm open to considering Maryanne's points about perhaps we're not -- we're just not as used to sitting still and losing ourselves in that kind of deep reading that she's talking about. On the other hand, I always find myself resisting these arguments about, this is the end of civilization as we know it. And I have to say, back in the 19th century, there were an awful lot of people who were not losing themselves in deep reading. I mean, isn't that a rather recently acquired skill?
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Maryanne?
WOLFI'd say two things. I think, along with Maureen, we are not talking doomsday. There's no binary here. But I think, rather, we -- I will say that it's an odd thing for a cognitive neuroscientist to feel like a canary. But I feel something like a canary. These are worries. It's not as if we can't read deeply on different devices, but do we? And what do we literally -- what do we literally think about our own reading's changes. I actually think that's why Rosenwald's article became such a -- almost like a touchstone for people.
WOLFThey are noticing their own changes. And it's not that we can't, but that we feel less like doing it. And I think that's a really important thing. I think, Maureen, I'll quote Wordsworth. He said, you know, "When we read poetry, we must remember that what we're after is the harvest of a quiet eye." And I think that's a beautiful line because I think we are missing out on that harvest that comes from stillness, that wonderful sense that we bring, inside this contemplative mode, new thoughts that I don't believe are the same when we're skimming and just rushing through to get the information from a text.
NNAMDIWell, Maureen, you've written about this harvest, about the pleasure of reading. And I wonder if you've found that technology has encroached upon your ability to read or your time for reading in recent years?
CORRIGANCertainly my time. I have to make more dedicated time to read, because the temptations are out there. The temptations have multiplied with the Internet. So that's a difference. On the other hand, I was laughing, Kojo, when you did your intro about, you know, rushing home and checking the email. I mean, when was it ever thus that most of us sat down in our beautiful book-lined studies in our deep, leather chairs drinking a good cup of -- glass of port and lost ourselves in, you know, a novel.
NNAMDIOkay, okay. So I never did that.
CORRIGANWe never did that. I grew up as a kid reading on the subway and in a small apartment...
CORRIGAN...reading as -- yeah -- as the TV was on and the radio was on. We learn how to kind of block out the distractions if we want to, and if the book tempts us enough to do so.
NNAMDIBut I got to tell you I do a lot of reading on the Kindle app on my iPad and find that, when I'm reading on that device, every few minutes I'm checking email, I'm checking Twitter, I'm checking Facebook. I don't do that when I'm holding a book in front of me.
NNAMDIFor some reason or the other, I don't feel that vibe. But, who knows? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Allow me to go to Bob in Washington D.C. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBOh, thank you, Kojo. I really enjoyed the ladies -- your speakers' point of view. I'm age 70 and my -- I've been coming down for years and now I've got a real problem. I'm retired. I've got 3,000 books in the basement that I either read once or really want to get through and finish their history text. They tend to be fairly dense often. And I want to retain a lot of what I read. The prospectus is not good. I wonder if your speaker could speak to, perhaps by name, speed reading programs that would allow me to move through my mountain of books.
NNAMDIWell, you know, you may have called just a little bit too soon because we're going to be talking to someone very, very shortly who may be able to advise you. So Bob, can I -- can you do me the favor of putting you on hold again and we're going to take a break and then bring that individual into the conversation so you can get a more direct response to that?
BOBAbsolutely and thank you.
NNAMDIOkay, good. We're going to put Bob on hold and we're going to take a short break. And we'll come back to this conversation on reading, technology and attention span where we invite your calls at 800-433-8850, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow. If you have children do you worry about their ability to focus on longer works? How do you help them strike a balance, 800-433-8850? If the lines are busy, shoot us an email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about reading, technology and attention span. We're talking with Maryanne Wolf. She's the John DiBaggio professor of Citizenship and Public Service and the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, the author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." She joins us along with Maureen Corrigan, critic in residence and a lecturer in the Department of English at Georgetown University. She's also book critic for NPR's Fresh Air and author of the literary memoir "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading."
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone from Salt Lake City, Utah is Jamie Locke, vice-president of Operations for Spritz. That's a tech startup focused on text streaming technology and its integration into modern communication. Jamie Locke, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. JAMIE LOCKEThank you. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDISome of our reading may need to be done quickly. There are plenty of tech tools out there that help to aim in those scenarios. When Spritz hit the scene a few months ago, some coverage got it right and some didn't. Jamie, what exactly is it, and Bob, make sure you're listening.
LOCKESure. So what Spritz does very well is reading on very small displays and reading the text that you -- we call it the have to text that you have to read every single day. Our technology works off of a approximately 30-year-old technology called RSVP at its very base, which shows words to readers one at a time.
LOCKEAnd then the other piece and what we worked very, very hard on, is a technology that we introduced which is called optimal recognition point, which is the point in every word that you read that your brain, when it gets your eyeballs to that position in the word, that's the point where your brain says, ah, oh now I know what that is. And it gives you comprehension associated with that word that you were actually reading.
LOCKEYeah, so we've -- we came out and debuted our technology approximately six weeks ago now at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. We chose that because of course it's all dedicated to mobile. And that's one of the places where we feel that our technology really shines on that have-to-read literature that people have to go through every day. Not literature. Things like emails.
NNAMDIWell, I haven't seen Spritz but I have, in the past, read a teleprompter. Is there a comparison?
LOCKEWell, a teleprompter functions differently than Spritz and it also doesn't contain any kind of positioning to show your eyeball where it needs to be looking...
LOCKE...as the words are shown to you.
NNAMDIJamie, a lot of headlines about Spritz heralded the ability to read a novel in 90 minutes through the software. Is that, in your mind, the best use for it?
LOCKENo, definitely. We absolutely advocate, you know, reading all the things, you know, the want-to-reads in any method that you're comfortable with, you know. For all means if you're going to read Shakespeare, please go grab a great book, sit under a tree, let the wind blow through your hair and live the experience.
LOCKESpritz is really about, you know, those have-to-reads or emails, the things that you have to do for work every single day. Not necessarily the things that you really want to savor and enjoy.
NNAMDIWell, let me bring back Bob in Washington, D.C. on the phone. Bob, I am not sure that what Jamie and Spritz are talking about is what you're looking for.
BOBWell, my daughter operates in 15-second soundbites on her iPad, iPhone stuff. the problem I'm got is that these -- most of what I want to read are actual historical texts authored professorially -- your Georgetown professor lady will recognize them -- historical, American Civil War battle text, original accounts...
NNAMDISo you're looking for the old Evelyn Woods speed-reading course was what you seem to be looking for.
BOBWell, I'm looking for you to tell me that, yes, that's the only thing on the market or that for this kind of thing you might try as you would recommend.
NNAMDII have no idea. Maureen Corrigan?
CORRIGANI always feel when people tell me that they are having trouble reading something that they want to read, that if I or a governmental agency were to say to them, you are not allowed to read that, that that would be the greatest spur to reading.
NNAMDIThey'd pick it up in a heartbeat.
CORRIGANThey'd pick it up in a heartbeat, yeah. There's -- so that's my recommendation. Imagine that the IRS or something has told you you can't...
NNAMDIMaryanne, any recommendations for Bob?
WOLFWell, I -- you may have read this in the Washington Post article but I did have a simpler, very bad experience going back and trying to read Hermann Hesse's "Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game." And what I found, Bob, was that in the very beginning it was almost like reading molasses. I could not force my -- I couldn't force myself to slow down long enough to read that kind of syntactic complexity in that book by Hesse.
WOLFBut with discipline, I forced myself to read every day for 20 minutes until two weeks were over. And Bob, it was as if I finally came home to myself and the way I once was able to read that kind of material. And my suggestion -- it's only anecdotally based on a case study of one -- is that when one literally has patience with yourself because you've changed your reading habits, you've changed your reading style, you will actually become the reader that you want to be. But it requires patience and discipline.
NNAMDIAnd this email, Bob, we got from Devon who says, "I found that the Kindle app on my iPhone has allowed me to enjoy short bursts of reading much in the way the other colleagues might break for a cigarette or browse a website. I still enjoy deep reading but with a toddler, a demanding job and home life requirements, I no longer have the luxury afforded during my academic career. I tend to get much more pleasure and full moment from my short reading bursts throughout the day and still am able to plow through 1,000-plus-page tomes in a slightly increased amount of time."
NNAMDISo, Bob, there you go. Thank you very much for your call. And, Jamie Locke, do you have a sense of how much of what people read through Spritz is retained?
LOCKEWell, you know, we actually operate on a principle that we call the goldilocks zone. So the goldilocks zone is the point when you are spritzing, is what we call it, where it's neither too slow nor too fast. It's just right. And there are several environmental variables that go into that, everything from your own natural capabilities as a reader to the environment that you're in to, you know, even your mood and the complexity of the text that you're reading.
LOCKESo just like in traditional reading, the spritzing speed that you choose for a particular piece of content is going to be potentially highly variable. You know, once again, you know, to go back to the thousand-words-per-minute Shakespeare example, you know, we -- you know, there's a very, very small, small, small, small number of people that could ever actually do that. Most people are going to find -- you know, slow down greatly and, you know, go back to Bob's call also, you know, it's been through material.
LOCKEWe just published via Oyster "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," you know the Stephen Covey classic. It's now in its 25th year. And put that up for people to start actually attempting to Spritz through and, you know, give us feedback on. So, you know, for the Spritz technology, people really, really, really want Spritz to succeed. And they want, you know, to kind of treat us like a Swiss army knife of reading which is, you know, I can Spritz this and I can Spritz this.
LOCKEBut once again, you know, that goldilocks zone, if you go outside of it, you know, your comprehension absolutely suffers. Just like if you tried to force yourself to read on a traditional page at twice your regular reading speed. It'd be very, very, very difficult without any kind of training to comprehend all that material.
NNAMDIMaryanne, in those instances in which we might need to read fast, what do our brains tend to miss, especially if we block out some of the text in order to do it?
WOLFWell, there's actually some interesting research. Jamie, you probably read this by Zvia Breznitz in Israel Haifa University in which she has this technique, a whole method called accelerated reading. And Jamie's absolutely correct. There is this -- the one who calls it goldilocks, there is this zone, if you will, in which if we go outside, we do lose comprehension. We can go a certain amount of speed but if we do either go too slow or in fact too fast, comprehension does suffer. So it's finding that zone.
WOLFBut I'd say there's -- you know, I'm really very happy to be on a program with Jamie because I think there was a lot of misapprehension by people like me that the assumption was that you could use this or should use this for various kinds of text. And the have-to text seems exactly right. it's when you are using it in areas that require much more concentrated focused attention that you would actually miss both the amount of information going forward, which is called anticipatory facilitation and the amount that you get backwards, which is called comprehension monitoring. So you're losing both of those elements which you get in -- on a line of text.
NNAMDIJamie, I'm curious to know how you use the software yourself and how you balance your use of it with other kinds of reading you do in the course of a day.
LOCKEYeah, that's actually a great question because for the have-to things, absolutely, I love using Spritz. And, you know, it's a little bit different than skimming. You know, skimming is where you're only taking in, you know, kind of key words and things that your brain think may be important as you're reading. That's what most of those methodologies try to train you to do. With Spritz you do see every word.
LOCKEBut in terms of my daily use, I also get to see a lot of other uses for Spritz. We have a very active developer network, almost 30,000 developers working to create new Spritz software. So I see a whole bunch. And I have -- to be honest, like I said, people really want to see Spritz used in a lot of different -- you know, different ways, including everything from, gosh, sheet music, you know, to poetry like you said, which I still don't recommend.
LOCKEBut, you know, they really want to try and do this. And it is because of that downward pressure. Everybody -- you know, the amount of content that people consume, especially textural content and especially those have-to things that you read, are increasing in number. You know, my inbox sees well over 300 every single day. But in terms of how you Spritz, I do, I use it on the have-to type of things. But then I do sit down with a good book before I dreamily fall asleep every night after, you know, 15- or 16-hour day with Sprits.
NNAMDIThe only way I can go to sleep. Here's Tim in Baltimore, Md. Tim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TIMHi, Kojo. Hi, Maureen, hi, Maryanne, hi, Jamie. I am 25 so I'm kind of in the age group where I'm just starting to be, like, affected by this. Because when I was younger, text and stuff was just coming up. But I do work with kids and I find that it might not always be a textual issue. Like, it might not always be a developmental issue. It might be more of an interest issue. Like you can hand the kid "Catcher in the Rye" and it'll take them, you know, four or six weeks to finish that book. But you can hand them all seven "Harry Potter" novels and they'll finish them, you know, in five weeks flat.
TIMSo I was wondering if you don't -- if you guys don't figure that maybe this is more a relatability issue with the literature that they're reading as opposed to a developmental issue.
NNAMDIMaureen, what do you think?
CORRIGANI think you've got a point there. You know, I served on the National Endowment For the Arts Big Read Project. And that was sparked by the study in 2004 called Reading at Risk that showed that Americans reading was going down, or anything loosely classified as literature, including cat books.
CORRIGANIn 2008 there was another study put out by the NEA called Reading on the Rise. And all of a sudden the reading rates had spike, and guess why. Because of Harry Potter and the Twilight Series. So, you know, if you do have a book or a series that really seems to spark so much love and interest in people, they read.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We got an email from Melanie who says, and it's a little long so bear with me, "I'm an avid reader normally devouring at least 300 pages of weight fiction per week, Hardy, Shakespeare. About a year ago I started buying books on my iPad. At first it was only nonfiction, materials I'd want to annotate and refer to in my professional life. But then I started buying books to read on vacations. I have never finished one single book or article I purchased on my iPad regardless of how enthralling it was. I even turned off the email and the I-message alerts on my iPad but still found myself toggling to Facebook and Instagram.
NNAMDIOnce I get absorbed by a book, those inattentive synapses completely quiet down. As I shift back to exclusively textual reading, I have to work a little harder to focus, example, by putting the technology in a different room. But my tendency to focus on text is still deeply engrained and it comes back quickly." So, Maryanne, what Melanie seems to be suggesting is that there's hope.
WOLFYes. There is -- I hope there is. We all do. I think there's several things I want to say, and that is, we are creatures of association. So when that iPad, when that Kindle, whatever we're using is associated so much with what I would call -- and it wasn't my term but continuous partial attention where you're thinking about the next stimuli, the next stimuli, then we get this mode of reading that's connected with that device.
WOLFI think the book has an extraordinary number of connections that we still don't completely understand. Researchers like Ann Mangan from Norway and others are talking about the kinesthetic, the tactile, even the smell of a book slows us down so that this temptation of what I would call continuous partial attention isn't exerting the same force.
WOLFSo there's both what the circuit of the brain can do and then what it does in different modes. That doesn't mean we can't override it, but it does mean we have to work hard. And discernment is all -- I think Jamie actually said this, I think discernment about which materials are best served by which mode of reading is very important.
NNAMDIJamie, you nodded um-hum. Anything else you'd like to say?
LOCKENo. I absolutely agree. You know, Spritz isn't for everything. And, you know, technically just because it could be and you could read those, you know, very wonderful long novels like, you know, Hardy or Shakespeare, like the email noted, doesn't mean that it's necessarily appropriate. You know, what I do with the time that I save by reading my have-to's, is I then re-funnel it into the want-to reading later at night.
LOCKEOtherwise, you know, 300 plus emails per day, you know, my five buzzes even when my phone isn't in my pocket, because it's so used to it. I use that additional time that I make up to go and read a book. Other people may use it to spend more time with their kids or, you know, go outside and exercise. You know, we're about getting time back. And how people choose to use it is up to them. I hope they use it to read more good books, absolutely.
NNAMDIJamie Locke is the vice president of operations for Spritz, that's a tech start-up focused on text streaming technology and its integration into modern communication. Jamie, thank you so much for joining us.
LOCKEYou bet. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Maureen Corrigan and Maryanne Wolf and you, those of you who call 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. If you have children, do you worry about their ability to focus on longer works? How do you help them strike a balance? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about reading, technology and attention span with Maryanne Wolf, John DiBaggio professor of citizenship and public service, Tufts University, author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." And Maureen Corrigan, critic in residence and a lecturer in the Department of English, Georgetown University, also book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air," and author, the literary memoir, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading."
NNAMDIMaureen is someone who reads a lot of long form work, but for a variety of reasons. I wonder if you find that the way you read when you're, say, on deadline for a review, is different than the way you read for pleasure. And if that may be different from re-reading a book on the syllabus of a course you're teaching.
CORRIGANThat's funny. I think when I read on deadline my mind snaps to attention more and certainly I'm aware of maybe passages in a novel that I'll want to quote in the review. And I'll mark them with a sticky note because I really don't like to stop and take notes. That disrupts the experience of losing yourself in a book.
NNAMDIWhen it comes to the new releases that you read for review, have you noticed any changes or trends in publishing, if you will, that you think reflect our changing attention spans?
CORRIGANWell, I have one theory that there is a change. Because we now, online, can sample so many books with their first chapter. I think the first chapters of novels, and even non-fiction works, are more front-loaded these days, with, you know, great anecdotes or something that really captures the reader's attention so that they'll buy the book.
NNAMDIMaryanne, what strikes me is that it seems to be not so much an issue of ability, but ultimately one of patience. Is there a sense that we can retrain our brains back to being able to read these dense texts or -- which is what our earlier emailer seems to indicate? Or is this a skill that is lost to us once it's gone?
WOLFNo. I have great hope in the plasticity of everything, including the reading brain circuitry. I think, though, there is this maxim in neuroscience. You use it or lose it. I don't think it's that serious for all of us, that we will lose these capacities, but I do think they atrophy. And I think it does force us to make almost a choice. Do we want to really get to the depth? Do we really want to add our own thoughts? Or are we just entertaining ourselves with whatever we're reading or just getting information.
WOLFAnd I'd actually like to make a point here that is more philosophical. Aristotle said that a good society has basically three aspects. That it's a society that has productivity and knowledge. That has enjoyment, leisure in the sense of cultural leisure, as well. But also it has contemplation. And I think the same thing. And I'm actually going to be writing about this in another book.
WOLFI think the good reader is just like that. We have to have productivity. We have to have knowledge. We have to have leisure. But I think we're losing the aspect of contemplation in the way we're reading these days. Now, Maureen, I don't know if you're experiencing that with some of your students or not. I feel like I was experiencing that in myself, but that by choosing to actually discipline myself I could go back to that very different, very patient, even still -- a place of stillness in my reading. But not with port, Maureen. No leather chair. No port. If only.
NNAMDIThe aspect of contemplation, Maureen?
CORRIGANI, you know, I have to say one thing that I keep hearing in all of our conversations about this subject, is almost as though reading is this leisure time activity. And it's close to entertainment. And maybe some of what we're losing today is this sense of -- speaking to Maryanne's point -- that reading should be as essential as breathing. That we should be doing it more often, certainly. And challenging ourselves with what we read. I think some of that certainly is being lost.
NNAMDIIt's not what we do when we have spare time.
NNAMDIIt should be one of our daily activities, as Maryanne talked about productivity, because it is a productive enterprise.
CORRIGANYeah, and that would be the promise of this technology. That you could take a book anywhere and, you know, a very light Kindle, and challenge yourself.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Are there functions of e-reading tools, like tablets and Kindles, that you find either disrupt or enhance your ability to focus on and read a text? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Here's Beatrice, in Silver Spring, Md. Beatrice, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BEATRICEHi. Hello. Hello, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call.
BEATRICECan you hear me? Yes?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
BEATRICEOkay, great. I wanted to share that I'm 46 and I have a seven-year-old, so of course I also worry about her reading attention span and her copying me. And I'm often distracted through texts and devices and things. The one thing I've tried to do more often, and it helps me keep up with reading longer books is audible books. So, like, for example, I was looking for "100 Years of Solitude," because the other day the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
BEATRICEAnd I was thinking, "Oh, I'm never going to have time to read this book again." And then I was, like, "Okay. I'll just download it and hear it when I drive or when I'm on the Metro." And my kid, I also download certain apps that listening, reading, like, Storynory, like free books that -- they shouldn't replace her reading, but I think it helps to still have the attention to follow a long story.
NNAMDIMaryanne, what do you say about audio books?
WOLFYou know I like them very much. I think especially in a time where we have so little time, that we can use the audio book to restore that. But I would say to you, the mother, that there's probably nothing better for your child than actually you reading with her under the crook of your arm and associating this experience of affect and enjoyment, your enjoyment of the story, so that she absorbs that.
WOLFI think we who are the caretakers, the adults or whatever of the next generation, I think to -- just as Maureen's book title -- I love it -- just convey the beauty, the absolute beauty that we get from reading, I think that's one of the greatest gifts that we could give our children.
NNAMDI"Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading," is the title of the book that Maryanne referred to. Thank you for your call, Beatrice. We move on now to Carla, in Fairfax, Va., who is also concerned about children. Carla, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLAYes. I'm 21 years old and my son is three. I read to him every single night just regular, you know, children's stories, but when he goes to his grandparents' house he often plays on an iPad or he -- he's very familiar with it already at three years of age. And I'm worried that his attention span will shorten that way. And I do want him to be, you know, very in depth, very intellectual because I love literature so much. And I'm wondering if this is an outdated idea of our time or it's in the future, you know. It is turning to the shorter attention.
NNAMDIYou're wondering if what is an outdated idea? The notion that he should be a deep reader?
CARLAThat the -- well, the notion that, you know, that, yes, that we need literature because of so much technology that people do, we just skim through things and there's really not a lot of time to sit down in a lot of people's lives and, you know, it's kind of sad, but I'm wondering…
NNAMDIWell, I'm pretty sure you won't hear from either of our panelists that this is an outdated idea. But I would let them speak for themselves. First you, Maureen Corrigan.
CORRIGANNo, I don't. No. If I were to say it was an outdated idea I'd do myself out of a couple of jobs. Right?
CORRIGANYou know, when I hear your story though and think about a three-year-old playing with devices, you know, reading is an antisocial activity, in the sense that you do have to be alone. And you seal yourself off. And certainly a lot of kids three and older, they don't want to be sealed off that way. That's why I think Maryanne's suggestion of reading to your child is such a great one. Kids don't want to be solitary, like some of us older folks do.
NNAMDIMaryanne, I know you've said that the idea of children not developing this ability to read dense materials is what concerns you most, how much of this have you found to be an issue of education and screen versus paper in the classroom?
WOLFWell, it's -- what I want to just back up just a tiniest bit, if you will.
WOLFAnd let me say to this mother that I think we would never be able to go back in time and think that technology won't be essential for our children. It's part of developing 21st-century skills. But I think the trick, if you will, is to find a balance in which we are gradually having our children become ever more adept with these 21st century's -- but especially in the beginning, never allow this idea of outmoded or antiquated or anything to distract us from conveying, in whatever ways we can, the reading life and to be able to instill that into our children.
WOLFThere have been actual studies by Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, in Pennsylvania, in which she compared language development of young children who got all the bells and whistles and, you know, all the tapes and videos and everything for two years, versus children who did not and who had just normal input from their caretakers and parents, etcetera. And the language development of the children who simply had people was actually better than the kids who had all the supposedly most sophisticated technologies and were being immersed in them.
WOLFSo I think there are lessons that we -- we still don't have enough information. But I think there are lessons to be learned developmentally. Now, Kojo, I don't know if you want me to talk about my older students, but…
NNAMDIJust for a minute.
WOLFYeah. But I think the studies are contradictory at this moment. There are studies in L.A., there are studies in Haifa, Israel, in which they are using more or less digital-like natives. And what -- in some instances when dense material with comprehension and time demands are being used it seems -- at least this is the Israeli study -- it seems that the students believe, they perceive they are doing better on the screen, but the reality is they are doing better with print.
WOLFNow, the L.A. study was not set up in the same way. And it wasn't as sophisticated materials, more than likely, like the Haifa one, so they didn't find the same results. So, for me, this requires real attention by our society. Not the lurch that we're actually involved in.
NNAMDIHere's Naomi, in Washington, D.C. Naomi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. We're running out of time, though.
NAOMIThank you so much. I'll talk quickly. It's important that we understand that young adults do themselves understand that reading on screens is usually bad for concentration, whether they're reading for study or whether they're reading for pleasure. I've been doing some research in the U.S., in Germany and Japan with undergraduates.
NAOMIAnd overwhelmingly they report that hard-copy is the best way for them to concentrate. They also say that they multitask three times as much when they're reading on the screen as when they're reading in print. So my question is, if the students themselves understand the problems in reading anything they want to wrap their mind around when they're reading on screens, why are schools and colleges encouraging students to read digitally?
NNAMDII guess it's the way of the world, so to speak, would you say, Maryanne?
WOLFUnfortunately, I think -- I'm going to be very unpopular saying this. I think we have lurched because of corporations who see this as a very important aspect for them, before the research. So I'm just going to take a hard line. I wish we had more research on this before the whole place goes digital. And this is me, who studies.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're almost out of time, but I do have to get Maureen to respond to this email from Jane, who said, "The saddest part of this issue is that we're not referring to anything longer than a Facebook post or a tweet as long form. What did 19th century readers think of Dickens' novels in serial form? Is there a parallel with reading short bites of a book via an e-reader?
CORRIGANI think there is. And I think there's also a parallel in the sense that the medium shaped the novel. Dickens' novels were shaped by the fact that they were published serially. Just like some of our novels are now being shaped by the fact that the first chapter is available online.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Maureen Corrigan is critic in residence and a lecturer in the Department of English at Georgetown University. Also book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air," and author of the literary memoir, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading." Maureen, thank you for joining us.
CORRIGANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIMaryanne Wolf is John DiBaggio professor of citizenship and public service and the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. She's the author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." Maryanne, great to talk to you again.
WOLFThank you, Kojo. And you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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