Epistolary Day: A Quality of Attention

ReaderComeHomeDear Maryanne Wolf,

Your chapter on the processes of deep reading stopped me in my t-r-a-c-k-s.

I was particularly struck by your account of former president Barack Obama’s conversation with novelist Marilynne Robinson and the capacity for empathy that fiction builds within us.

Excerpt:

…Obama told Robinson that the most important things he had learned about being a citizen had come from novels: “It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with someone else even though they’re very different from you.”

It’s an ability we desperately need in the world today. It makes sense to me that reading can hold the antidote to a “culture of indifference.”

As I turn off my cell phone and computer and prepare to read for the sake of reading, I’m going to be chuckling over Eileen Gunn’s short short story. It would take me many more words to explain that story than the six words that it consists of–or, to be precise, five words, because the word “computer” repeats itself.

Praise the sentence, its opportunities, its limits. Praise reading for the worlds it opens up and keeps on building, in the only mind I have.

Epistolary Day: The Reading Circus

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From Letter Two, Reader, Come Home

Today I’m replying to Chapter Two of Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home with a letter. Because–well, how else, really?

Dear Maryanne Wolf,

You made me think about a single word in an entirely new way. Tracks.

T-r-a-c-k-s.

You reminded me that reading isn’t hardwired in my brain, that my brain’s “plasticity within limits” is the wondrous principle that has rearranged my circuits to make reading possible. You made me aware of the multiple acts by specialized neurons that release meaning within single letters, combinations of letters, design, prefixes and suffixes and plurals, probability and prediction, context (verb or noun or something else?), and then the next layer still, memory and association and emotional meanings. A kind of “Circuit du Soleil,” you said, thus imprinting that image indelibly.

All this happens in the single moment, when my eye lands upon that word? I felt the same awe that comes to me when I think of the chemical communications of tree roots or the nests of cliff swallows. Who needs miracles? Being alive in the world is miracle enough.

Your choice of word, too, is particularly apt. You could have picked any word. It seems, on the surface, as if any word will do. But this one has connotations that lift me up from the last chapter and transport me into the next, so that Letter Two becomes itself a track upon with my circus train starts to rattle on towards its next destination.

You write:

Anyone who still believes the archaic canard that we use only a tiny portion of our brains hasn’t yet become aware of what we do when we read.

When I revise my words today, I’ll do so with a new respect for the work I’m asking my readers’ brains to do.

Sincerely yours,

Your Reader

The Reading Brain, Kindness, and Contemplation

Proust and the SquidRemember Proust and the Squid, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf’s 2007 account of how humans learned to engage in that seemingly unnatural activity we call reading? How the brain was changed by that unprecedented development and is now on the brink of changing yet again?

Here is the follow-up to that book. It’s epistolary in form, consisting of a series of letters to readers.

It’s titled Reader, Come Home.

Speaking for myself, I can’t resist a good invitation. I am now reading a letter a day from Maryanne Wolf to–me!

ReaderComeHomeOr at least that’s how it feels. This line, for example:

To be sure, when I was a child learning to read, I did not think about reading. Like Alice, I simply jumped down reading’s hole into Wonderland and disappeared for most of my childhood.

That was the child me. I have ended up living a life of words, a life built around reading but I sometimes wonder if I have lost the ability to leap into a book and lose myself, the way I did as a child, when the boundaries of the real world just dissolved and I was impervious to all distraction.

Proust and the Squid fascinated me and left me with questions about the young readers I write for and whether reading would be changed by emerging media. Now, more than a decade later, those questions have coalesced into worry, as we find ourselves deeply entrenched in a culture of digital media with all its bells and whistles, quickness and instant bling.

I’m delving right now into the last round of edits on a middle grade nonfiction project that is definitely all about the long haul, about thinking deeply and embracing kindness. That potential reader, 8 or 10 or 12 years old, is never far from my thoughts. For many reasons, this book seems particularly timely.

There’s something about the format of the letter that is at once anachronistic and entirely appropriate to the subject. A letter invites me to pause, to think about a point, to feel in communication with the writer. Wolf cites Rainer Maria Rilke’s kindness in Letters to a Young Poet as a source of inspiration. She writes about Aristotle’s good society with its three lives–knowledge and productivity; entertainment and leisure; and contemplation–and suggests there are three kinds of reading lives as well. She wonders if that third life of contemplation is in danger from the sequestered kind of reading that everyone does nowadays, reading only what we agree with, reading only in easily consumable bites.

The reading brain, she says, is the “canary in our minds. We would be the worst of fools to ignore what it has to teach us.”

Rilke writes in the first of his letters:

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.

Wolf warns us against losing that very ability to “go within.” It’s a skill we’ve spent millennia acquiring. It seems a shame to toss it away now.