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Can Reading Go Extinct? A World Without Words

My love for the squid goes as far back as I can remember and has nothing to do with calamari. It’s hard to trace the obsession's origin, but I’m sure it has to do with creature intelligence combined with a love for the sea. The squid was the serendipitous cover image that recently drew me to pick up Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid, and within the first few chapters, I immediately knew this week's post content.

It had nothing at all to do with the squid.

Wolf’s book is about reading. What surprised, scared, and got my brain wheels turning were the implications about where reading, and by default, writing, may be destined.

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The book begins with the unnerving assertion that reading is a human invention, and as such, the human brain wasn’t designed for reading. In fact, the act of reading represents how the human brain is capable of rewiring itself to do something novel. In learning to read, the brain calls upon areas originally designed for both vision and speaking. Reading is ultimately brain plasticity - or, the ability to adapt - in action.

Throughout the first few chapters of Proust and the Squid, Wolf teaches concepts about reading that become both mind-blowing and then immediately seem obvious. For example, someone that learns to read in one language, say Mandarin, learns only to restructure neuronal pathways to support the Mandarin language. A further attempt to learn a new alphabet, say, the English alphabet, would require restructuring the brain in an entirely new manner.

The brain can also learn to adapt when reading is processed in alternate ways, dyslexia being one byproduct of adaptation. Alternate means and processes are not surprising. It took humans almost 2,000 years to transition from a graphic or glyphic learning system to an alphabet-based one; and now, we can teach children to read in about 2,000 days.

That’s the scary part - the implication that reading is not natural; it's taught.

In a world that's becoming increasingly digital, is reading headed for extinction?

I admit that writing that sentence makes it sound like quite the overstatement. But even I, the avid reader, the everyday writer, didn’t merely “pick up” Wolf’s book. I scanned titles on my Libby app, and then downloaded the book to my phone. In my hour-long work commutes, I listened to the book, alone not with the words, but with the author’s voice and my thoughts. Nothing passed by my eyes to enter my brain; not when I could simply “Hey, Siri,” and play my current audiobook.

“Y, that perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass. The question we ask over and over. Why? Me with my arms outstretched, feet in first position. The chromosome half of us don't have. Second to last in the alphabet: almost there. Coupled with an L, let's make an adverb. A modest X, legs closed. Y or N? Yes, of course. Upside-down peace sign. Little bird tracks in the sand.
Y, a Greek letter, joined the Latin alphabet after the Romans conquered Greece in the first century -- a double agent: consonant and vowel. No one used adverbs before then, and no one was happy.”
Marjorie Celona, Y

As a writer that revels in words, I am afraid. The art form I love may be threatened by digitization, and who knows to whom the future belongs. Is it some bizarre elite? Wolf asserts that young children who have heard and use more words by kindergarten already have a massive advantage over their counterparts who have not had as great an access to vocabulary. In a society where everything is already commoditized, it’s upsetting to think that language, too, is yet another commodity to be gained, lost, or traded.

As cognitive scientist and linguists, Steven Pinker says, “Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.” As technology becomes more sound-oriented, and data is transmitted in more bites than books, we must be more cognizant than ever to preserve writing, but more importantly, reading, as art and intellectual forms.

It’s amazing to think about where technology might take us in 100, 500, or even 1,000 years. While the human brain is plastic and is amazingly capable of adapting, it’s almost devastating to envision a world where our hands don’t transmit the words; where our eyes don’t change the words to images. Words are so closely linked to emotion and feeling, and so much of that is dependent on our own ability to pace our own input and relate those words to concrete concepts.

There’s not a whole lot of conclusion to this week’s post. It’s a thinking post. I read a book that got me a little nervous that the art form I adore so much could go away; never before had I considered such... silliness? Now, I know to use my brain to think just a bit bigger, a bit broader, and be more open to possibilities that lie ahead. I like to think I am capable of growth over time, and there may come a time where we don’t even know what could be lost to the digital ether. Maybe the written word won’t ever be lost; we never truly lost glyphic writing, as drawing is still an art form to this day.

One can hope. And write. And read.

Y not tap the happy button? Y not leave a comment? Y not...

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