If you have ever muttered to yourself, “Kids these days! They have the attention spans of gnats!”, I am here to report that the kids themselves agree. At least the twelve students in my Senior Seminar course for English majors do. We spent a seventy-minute class period this week lamenting our diminished ability to concentrate. And I include myself among the “kids” in this case.
We came to this concern through our reading of Maryanne Wolf’s 2018 book, Reader, Come Home. (Note: Thanks to Jennifer Holberg for originally adding this book to our Senior Seminar syllabus.) Wolf is a cognitive science and literacy researcher, and Reader, Come Home grapples with the way our intense relationship with digital media is changing our brains and diminishing our capacity for what she calls “deep reading.” She is not a total Luddite: she acknowledges that digital media bring numerous gifts and advantages. And she concludes with a call for cultivating a “biliterate brain,” one that can nimbly navigate the digital world while also retaining the “cognitive patience” needed to read difficult works with attention and empathy.
On our way to that conclusion, however, my students and I felt “seen” as Wolf describes in early chapters our lives of “continuous partial attention.” She cites a couple studies concluding that “the average person consumes multiple gigabytes [of information] across varied devices each day. Basically, that is the equivalent of between 50,000 and 100,000 words a day.” In other words, the size of a novel. But of course, we don’t read these words carefully; we skim. We skim across the surface of this roiling information ocean. Wolf quotes Walter Benjamin from the 1930s, who noted (back then!) the temptation to “pursue a present,” slurping in “information that does not survive the moment in which it is new.” What would poor Benjamin say about Twitter?
As my students pondered this assessment of our cultural slide to fragmented attention, they recalled how once upon a time, they loved reading. After all, that’s how they ended up as English majors in the first place. As kids, they had immersed themselves in novels especially, and entered the minds of other people and the thrill of other worlds. They felt their inner souls quietly shining with the glow of discovery. It was amusing to listen to my students recalling middle school fondly.
What happened? Well, it’s not just phones and TikTok. Middle school, they reflected, was the time before the weight of the world crashed in on them, along with the knotted tangles of adult responsibilities and the relentless demands of the high school achievement mill. Back in middle school, they could still spend a whole afternoon away somewhere in their minds—in Middle Earth or nineteenth-century Sussex, inside the consciousness of some intriguing protagonist.
Even allowing for the shift from pre-teen glories to adult drudgery, we all admitted that Wolf is right about media. Our brains are altered by swimming in digital media, its allures and distractions. And our lives of continuous partial attention make deep concentration more difficult. We can still do it, but it’s harder. I feel this too, and I’m a professor of English, for crying out loud. I’m basically a professional reader. Sheesh.
So what? Does it matter that we are losing the ability to spend long hours lingering our way through Anna Karenina? Wolf argues hard for the benefits of “deep reading,” especially of literary novels. She spends a good number of pages exploring how deep reading fosters empathy, parsing out the building blocks of this virtue: analogy, inference, knowledge, insight. I think all of us who are readers recognize how reading has stretched our own empathy. However, we have to admit that whatever empathy emerges from our reading depends a great deal on the posture of openness with which we enter the reading experience in the first place.
Wolf argues that much is at stake if we lose this ability to read deeply and hospitably: we begin to “outsource our intelligence to the information outlets that offer the fastest, simplest, most digestible distillations of information [that] we no longer want to think about ourselves.” Ouch. That tracks. Yes, there are broad implications for democracy and for our social fabric when we lose our cognitive patience.
So what to do? We left class on Thursday with this question somewhat up in the air. Next week, we’ll finish the book and consider Wolf’s summary prescription. She ends up recommending (based on Aristotle) that we think about—and structure education for—three layers to the “life of a good reader.”
Layer 1 is the ability to slurp up information and knowledge. Digital media proffer opportunity in abundance here. Layer 2 is the entertainment layer—actually, I think Wolf might more accurately call this the immersion layer. Getting immersed in stories or mysteries or biographies is good imaginative exercise—it builds knowledge and even empathy. Digital media are helpful here, too, though Wolf does argue for the uniquely valuable brain-work required to read long works on the printed page.
Layer 3 is the biggest challenge: the reflective life. Wolf writes, “The third life of the good reader is the culmination of reading and the terminus of the other two lives”: that is, the cultivation of a mental space where “we can contemplate all manner of human existence and ponder a universe whose real mysteries dwarf any of our imagination.”
Sure. Marvelous. But here I have some questions that I plan to raise with my students next week: Should we not, as religiously observant people, be especially adept in that third layer? Obviously, we too are affected by hyper-fragmented attention and the furious pace of a digital-media world. Its temptations to shallow reactions and outsourced thought clearly plague us, too. But we religious folk also have unique resources and practices to draw upon. What if we doubled down on all the resources we have and, knowing what’s at stake, rededicated ourselves to cultivating the loamy soil of that third layer?
Reading, yes. I’m a little nervous about Wolf’s argument that reading is the royal road to the inner life. I think she’s largely right—I’ve lived that experience surely—but I want to be cautious about ignoring other possible roads. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we, as devout people, be especially fond of cultivating deep reading? We are supposed to read the Bible deeply and knowledgeably, not skim its surface and pluck out proof texts like stones to throw in our tribal power plays. Moreover, we in the Reformed tradition have traditionally respected the life of knowledge and study in general. We have championed and supported the life of the mind, the expansion of all kinds of knowledge, and the serious contemplation of the deep things of God. This is a heritage that needs constant reclaiming.
And what about prayer? We are supposed to spend time in prayer daily, and many of us do, trying to cultivate that inner space where we encounter God personally. Can we continue to teach this practice well to our children, model it well? Can we help one another get out of the “checklist of tasks for God” rut in our prayer, and instead encourage one another to make space for quieting the mind and seeking, simply, presence? It’s terribly hard! I’m not good at it, even after all these years. But perhaps contemplative prayer is a counter-cultural practice we need more than ever. I know I do.
And how about Sabbath? What if we regarded our Sunday worship and indeed the whole day as practice in attention, contemplation, pondering? I’m not simply suggesting “social media fasts.” Maybe that would help, sure. But mostly I’m thinking of receiving the gifts we already have: listening, music, communal prayer, conversation, feasting, resting. All these familiar practices—we can think of them as exercising those indispensable muscles of patient thought.
I was reading the story of the Nativity in Luke the other day, and I realized for the first time an odd pause in the narrative. Amid all the commotion—angel choirs singing and shepherds bustling into the manger scene—for one verse, the narrative pauses to say, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” In the next verse, the shepherds bustle off again, noisily rejoicing.
Why pause to note and honor this young woman’s inner life? I’m pondering Mary’s pondering here. I suppose this is one of many places in scripture where the ability to ponder is held up as a godly thing. Something to emulate.
It makes sense that in the European Middle Ages, Mary was regarded, perhaps unhistorically, as the model reader, often depicted reading a book with toddler Jesus squirming on her lap. It’s an emblematic way to honor the spiritual importance of meditative thought, that inner space where, even amid this mortal coil, the Word comes to us and we are, if all goes well, profoundly changed.