An Interview with Maryanne Wolf and Karen Swallow Prior on The Reading Brain

Dr. Karen Swallow Prior and Professor Maryanne Wolf have written extensively about reading and its impact on individuals and the world. Our Founding Member Emily Wenger, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago in AI and machine learning, recently interviewed them in a Zoom call about how they came to value reading, the importance of deep reading, and how our ability to read deeply affects both our political discourse and our spiritual lives.


Emily: Reading really matters to both of you.  When did you first realize its importance?

Wolf: The first epiphany for me was the relationship between literacy and the trajectory of an individual’s life and their contributions to society. My personal epiphany about its extraordinary importance for the world happened when I was a teacher in a Peace Corps-like mission in Hawaii. I saw the relationship between poverty and illiteracy and knew that if I could not teach these children to read, they would have ramifications for the rest of their life.

[My second epiphany about] reading was how it changed the brain. And that became clear after I was in this Peace Corps like mission, when I realized I had to figure out how we could change the trajectory of children by learning better how they learn to read. I [wanted to] contribute to it.

Prior: I grew up being read to. One of my earliest memories is just reading aloud to myself with my finger on the page. So for me, reading was a personal thing that shaped my life and my thinking in ways that I never really understood until I began to teach after getting my PhD. [Then] I began to encounter people, students who didn’t read well, who hadn’t been taught to read or expected to read.


E: What does our increasingly digitized world mean for the reading brain?  

Prior: In the past 10 years, I have started to notice that we’ve lost the ability to do close reading. [Many students I teach] don’t know how to engage a text carefully and closely. They don’t know what that means.They don’t even know that they’re supposed to read slowly. They think that, when they’re assigned Paradise Lost, they should skim it the same way they skim Facebook.

Wolf: Human beings are [now] inundated by so much text that they default to skimming. And when one skims, you believe you have accessed the truth of something, especially if it’s in a familiar silo. Because we have so much information [available online], we often go to the familiar, less complicated, less demanding silo, and assume because it’s familiar that it’s true.

And in that act of assuming it’s true, we have neglected to use our discerning, discriminating, critical analytic processes. When we do that, we become so vulnerable and unable to discern. When we skim, we do not assess the truth value [of what we’re reading], which leads us to be both susceptible to false news and vulnerable to demagoguery.


E: Talk more about this perceived connection between deep reading (or lack thereof) and political discourse. What do you think this means for our society?  

Wolf: [I realized this] when I was writing my book, Reader Come Home. I realized that democracy was being threatened by the changes to the reading brain that were occurring in a digital culture. [I realized] that there was a direct relation between what deep reading does in the reading brain, especially the learning of critical analytic type thinking over time, and the development of empathy over time. The screen might change those two emphases in such a way that they would be short circuited, resulting in a population that does not think as deeply or as emphatically about the major issues of that society.

Prior: [There’s] the connection to democracy. I mean, I don’t know the science behind it, but I know in the Christian world and in the political world, [we are being] torn apart by the current political climate. [I believe] that our division and polarization is the direct result of our inability to read both literally and metaphorically, to have empathy with someone who says or think something different [than we do], or [to] understand that there’s [additional] context [when we] interpret someone’s meaning or words.


E: Do you think there’s a connection between our ability to read deeply and our spiritual life?

Wolf: After the deep reading processes (Karen, in literature, will call it “close reading”), at the end of critical analysis and empathy, when all this integration is happening, the brain has the capacity to do something absolutely almost miraculous — maybe it is miraculous — when we have taken the sum of that set of processes and we begin to reflect upon it.

That’s the contemplative moment. It’s milliseconds, [and it] doesn’t always happen. In fact, it happens all too increasingly rarely for us, because when we’re not immersed, we don’t reflect. But it is the epitome of what Proust (discussed in my first book) said was the heart of reading — when you go beyond the wisdom of the author, to discover the spiritual life.

The spiritual life is search, and it requires reflection and contemplation and going beyond the text. I was raised Catholic, go to an Episcopal monastery, celebrate every Jewish holiday, and I’m interested in Buddhism. I am deeply Christian, deeply, and I believe to be deeply Christian is to be deeply reflective about who Christ was, what he was getting at.

And that’s why deep reading was the last letter in Reader Come Home. It was my hope [in writing that] for those who are spiritual to realize what they must preserve, or a great loss in our society will happen.


E: Thank you so much for your time.