Miners used to send canaries into coal mines to see if the air was safe enough to breathe. If the bird lived, it was safe for the workers. If it didn’t, well, that’s where we get the idea of “the canary in the coal mine.” The adage has come to mean an early indicator of danger.
Dr. Maryanne Wolf is the Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. Her third book, Reader, Come Home, is about how the digital revolution has changed reading in dangerous ways.
“The reading brain is the canary in our minds,” she writes, adding that good readers are not only a society’s canaries but also its “guardians of common humanity.”
Scrolling on screens leads to skimming, which is the opposite of reading deeply. In studying the skimming phenomenon, Wolf says it happens in a particular pattern, usually an F or a Z, as readers look for key words.
Recently, my husband told me Kindle added a scroll-down function, so he tried it. He found himself skimming, something he never does, not even when reading an e-book. So he went back to the old method of swiping left to turn the page. His said his job in a medical clinic involves a lot of old fashioned paperwork, and he didn’t want to lose the ability to read those documents carefully. For the good of humanity and of society.
Wolf says Aristotle wrote about the three lives of good society, and in her book she applies these characteristics to good readers:
First Life: Gathering Information and Acquiring Knowledge. Wolf writes, “We are awash in this life.” For me, this is reading I do for work and to become an informed citizen.
Second Life: Entertainment. This can be whatever reading you personally find entertaining, whether it’s a mystery, a presidential biography, a history of cancer, or a fantasy series that undermines every fantasy trope ever. (Each link is a book I have read for funsies.)
Third Life: Reflection and Contemplation. Selections from the first two categories may qualify for this third slot when we take the time to read deeply. Wolf says this type of reading is the one most threatened in our digital world and the one we most need to recover in order to return to our reading home.
The one genre that consistently forces me to reflect and contemplate is poetry. It’s why I read a few poems early each day, before I read anything else. It’s just me and my pencil and my notebook and my deep-reading brain. Usually I do this reading outside.
If I’m lucky, I hear a dove. Not a canary.
As this column changes from Reading in the Wild to Reader, Come Home, my task is to model deep reading. That means I’ll only talk about one book each month, seeking the bar Emerson set in his speech titled The American Scholar, delivered to the Cambridge University Phi Beta Kappa Society: “Every sentence is doubly significant.”
I will always be a wild reader and plan to continue sharing my list of good reads and hope you will continue sharing yours as well. Join us, dear readers, and come home.
The Great Frog Race and other poems, Kristine O’Connell George, illus. Kate Kiesler (picture book poetry)
Middle Grade and YA
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (next Children’s Book Club meets October 12!)
1) How does your reading life reflect Wolf’s three characteristics of good readers? Or how can it do so in the future?
2) Did you make some time for deep reading this month? What stories stirred your soul?
Browse Reading in the Wild
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro