Maryanne Wolf, an expert on the science of reading, was worried—as perhaps you have worried—that she might be losing the knack for sustained, deep reading.
She still buys books. “But more and more I read “in them rather than being whisked away by them,” she wrote.
Wolf told herself that it wasn’t the style of her reading that had changed, only the amount of time she could set aside for it.
So, she decided to set up an experiment on herself.
She decided to set a time every day to reread a novel she had loved as a young woman. It was Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi. (Hesse received a Nobel Price in Literature in 1945.) It was precisely the sort of demanding text she once loved.
The experiment went yuck!
She hated the book. She hated the whole so-called experiment. She had to force herself to wrangle the novel’s “unnecessarily difficult words and sentences whose snakelike constructions obfuscated, rather than illuminated, meaning for me.”
The book’s narrative was intolerably slow. She said she had “changed in ways I would never have predicted. I now read on the surface and very quickly; in fact, I read too fast to comprehend deeper levels, which forced me constantly to go back and reread the same sentence over and over with increasing frustration.”
She had lost the “cognitive patience” that once sustained her in reading such books as Magister Ludi.
She blamed the internet.
Remember how English teachers admonished us to “develop our paragraphs?” Now, most all paragraphs need to be about two sentences long. In fact, large blocks of text soon lose their reader.
And now I read that the GPT-3 equipment they are installing in cell phone prompts will give our phones the quality everyone pretends to but does not actually want in a lover — the ability to finish your thoughts.
Have you ever written a message where the damn messenger writer decides what your next word ought to be? For crying out loud, now it wants to write for us.
The GPT-3, instead of predicting the next word in a sentence, as our messaging appts do, would produce several paragraphs in whatever style it intuited from your prompt.
If you prompted it Once upon a time, it would produce a fairy tale. If you typed two lines in iambic pentameter, it would write a sonnet. If you wrote something vaguely literary like We gathered to see the ship and all its splendor, like pilgrims at an altar, it would continue in this vein:
If you wrote a news headline, it would write an article on that topic, complete with fake facts, fake statistics, and fake quotes by fake sources, good enough that human readers could rarely guess that it was authored by a machine.
OMG, is this true?
But then I come upon this quote by Geralyn Broder Murray. He greatly anticipated the arrival of a new bookstore in her neighborhood: Good News!
“And, for all the traumas bookstores have faced, they don’t appear to be going anywhere, which to me means there is hope for everything and everyone.”
Remember when bookstores started having coffee shops in their facility?
I was in heaven.
I miss bookstores. Oh, we still have Barnes and Noble in town, for which I am grateful. However, when I read Geralyn Murray’s thrill at having an independent bookstore move into her neighborhood, I was taken back to how I felt walking into a bookstore—all that adventure, all that knowledge, all ability to spin yarns. We used to have a wonderful Metaphysical bookstore in town that had a sign, “You want a book about what?”
“So, writes Murry, “the next time I feel the world crashing down around me,” I know exactly where to seek refuge: through the doors of my very own neighborhood bookstore, where the beauty and promise we all have within us is waiting to be picked up, purchased, and brought home in the form of a book — reminding me that all is not lost. Far from it.”–Geralyn Broder Murray Sep 22, 2021.
We used to frequent Libraries when we were kids. (And remember Ray Bradbury said he educated himself by reading from one side of the library to the other. And then, look what a writer he became. And he reveled in it. “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” ― Ray Bradbury)
But think of a bookstore and how thrilled you were with your new purchase. You couldn’t wait to get into it. You would carry your book home, and it would be yours. And you wouldn’t have to pay any Library late fees.
And then when the coffee shops arrived, well imagine, you could choose a book from the shelf, sit at a table and gently peruse the book—careful to keep it pristine, no coffee drips or anything.
In the days of bookstores, I would plunk down twenty-five bucks on a book and think nothing of it. Now I’m used to the $2.99 prices of Kindle, and even with my own book, The Frog’s Song, I feel it’s overpriced, but it is what the publisher demands. (Hey, they have to make money; otherwise, they will not stay in business. Which was the reason bookstores closed.)
I read on my Kindle. I order books online, but there is nothing like the thrill of walking into a bookstore where the air zings with the excitement. It’s a feeling not present in a library.
Oh, I take that back—some libraries. I went into the Oregon State Library in Corvallis, Oregon, once to research the horse’s brain and was overcome with their beautiful building–windows along one side, floor to ceiling, lots of light, a small food court, and a restroom. I could live there.
After reading Ms. Murray, I thought of the first book read to me by my mother, Anne of Green Gables. And in the second grade, there was a special reading time where we put our heads on our desks, and the Sister-nun read Heidi. That was the best time of being in the second grade. In the middle of the year, I had entered a Catholic School, a new kid, and was thrust into academia–I was embarrassed when asked to read aloud and stammered over my words. And you had to stand beside your desk. Horrors.
Before that, what I remember from the first grade and half of the second was that we played, and I was a darling because I could draw. In Catholic School, I made a special friend, a non-Catholic who was there because her mother, a doctor, thought it was the best school.
The point I’m getting to is this, those first books we read as children are etched into our soul. Perhaps they help form who we are. How I loved The Black Stallion series. I have read many books since, but none are as special as those first reads.
See ya. I’m going to have a glass of wine and pick up my current novel. (I just completed: Where the Forest Meets the Stars, by Glendy Vanderah Loved it.)
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” –Ray Bradbury
Do you have any comments, feedback, gripes, or suggestions on improving my service? (Yeah, Jo, open a Bookstore—in my dreams.)