Epistolary Day: In Praise of the Quiet Eye

ReaderComeHomeDear Maryanne Wolf,

I was always an easily distractible person. I still am. I can’t write if there’s music playing or if anyone is talking (other than the imaginary people in my head, that is). Sometimes, when I’m working on a draft, I have to pull the blinds down so I don’t end up spending hours staring at falling leaves or dragonflies instead.

As a child, my report cards frequently read, “Does not pay attention.” It was true. I was a hummingbird of a kid, whirling round in dizzy gladness, drawn from one bright object to the next.

But from the time I began to read, one thing always stilled me.  A book.

Give me a book and I would instantly get lost in its pages. I would become somebody else. I would go somewhere else, and somewhen as well. I would be transformed. Back in the 1960’s I didn’t have the bright objects that children have today. No screens with easy click-throughs to tempt my easily sidetracked brain away. Books allowed me to develop the “quiet eye,” the path to theologian John S. Dunne‘s “essence of things.” It would be years before I’d realize what a gift that was.

And because I didn’t have that many books, I reread the ones I had, over and over again. You quoted Anne Fadiman, Maryanne, on reading compared to rereading:

… the former had more velocity; the latter had more depth.

It made me see how I’m skimming so much more now, reading for information and not for immersion. The screen will do this to a person. It can fool you into thinking you know a lot. In reality, that kind of reading can result in knowing about many things, while knowing very little about any of them.

You cited Lorca’s poem, “My Ancient Heart of a Child.” And I wondered, if I, the distractible ex-child, who see myself now as a literate adult, am worrying about losing my own ability to read deeply,  what can I possibly do, as a writer for children, to stay true to the magic of the perfect word? How pass along the lineage I have inherited of generations upon generations of books, all speaking to one another and so, in the end, speaking to me? It seems to me that is the heart of a reading life, something that now feels as endangered as icebergs.

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.