For Maryanne Wolf, it began “innocently enough.” As her work became more digital, her e-mails shortened. She dropped magazine subscriptions. She started leaning on Google searches and weekly summaries for her reading. There’d be plenty of time to read more deeply over the weekend.
Then leftover tasks took the weekends, too.
If anyone should have been prepared for the change, it would have been Wolf, a scholar and literacy advocate who recorded her experience in her book “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World.”
But digital work, of course, spares few Americans. The sheer volume of e-mails, articles and direct messages leads to a “defense strategy,” Wolf said: skimming.
“You are missing words. You are missing clues. You are missing your ability to put your background information to work in the most productive way,” said Wolf, director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Maybe that’s fine for a few texts with friends. But what about the most demanding parts of daily work? Many of the day’s most important tasks involve careful, sequential thinking — functions honed by what scholars call deep reading. Might constant digital work threaten those cognitive processes?
“We have already begun to change how we read — with all of its many implications for how we think,” Wolf writes in her book. The brain’s “reading circuit” is adaptive. Processes that aren’t used can wither.
“What if, one day, you pause and wonder if you, yourself, are truly changing,” Wolf writes, “and, worst of all, do not have the time to do a thing about it?”
To others, the threat isn’t so dire.
Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of “The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads,” has argued that digital work probably can’t drastically reshape our cognitive systems. But he agreed there are obvious shortfalls to digital reading.
A long strand of research has shown that reading comprehension is better on paper than on screens. The divide depends on the type of reading, Willingham said.
“Informational” texts are harder to read on screen than “narrative” ones. Reading to memorize complicated facts or to gain a new skill is often easier on paper. Readers who are pressed for time also tend to show higher comprehension on paper. Reading a novel for fun, on the other hand, is probably fine either way.
That doesn’t mean they’re hopeless for thoughtful work.
Rather than see digital reading and print reading as frighteningly different, Wolf writes that we should see them as two languages, with different advantages. Good practices for concentration are good practices for reading on-screen.
• When you can, pick the right environment. “For a lot of us, it’s kind of romantic to read in a coffee shop,” Willingham said. “But if you’re doing difficult reading, that may be pretty distracting.”
• Cut out distractions. Turn off Wi-Fi or even put your phone in airplane mode, Willingham said.
• Take breaks. There’s lots of evidence that breaks truly refresh your mind, Willingham said.
• Don’t use breaks for Instagram and e-mail. “That’s not actually very restful, it’s just a different type of work,” Willingham said. It never hurts to take a walk.
• Take mornings or evenings (or both) off-screen. Contemplation and reflection are just as important as the work you’re leaving behind, Wolf said.
The stakes, Wolf said, are higher than how much work a person is able to get done in a day.
Immersive reading, with its ability to take on other perspectives and ideas, has implications for the basic stuff of society, Wolf said: empathy and connection. Contemplation. A richer emotional life.