Over the past few days, two things came together, but how will I know if they would also come together for you? Perhaps a way to begin is to explain I picked up a book from the library, and I attended a county health board meeting. The book is Maryanne Wolf‘s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. So many ideas to think about and enjoy in reading this volume which barely holds two hundred pages. It is engagingly dense with ideas and sources that expand in so many directions I hardly know how to hold it all in my head. Half way through, I decided I wanted to start again, at the beginning, and perhaps convince a friend or two, or maybe our local book club to give it a try so there is someone(s) to discuss this book with me.
The same day I picked the book up from the library, I went to the monthly county health board meeting. In a rural county in northwest Montana, it’s a board composed of seven community volunteers who serve “to prevent disease and illness, ensure a healthy environment and promote healthy choices by setting county-wide policies to protect the health of county residents.” One might think that although this board had been sorely tested with Covid, that in general the board would meet monthly to make decisions on air quality, animal control and solid waste disposal. And yes, these topics are on their list of responsibilities but Covid and other issues over the last three or four years forced the board to deal with politicized topics such as vaccines, masks and quarantines.
Do you attend public health board meetings? As I haven’t been to health board meetings in other places, I don’t know if the one here is typical. At last evening’s meeting, there were thirtysome people attending to give public comment on whether the county should have a pandemic influenza plan and if so, what details that plan would contain (a note that during the meeting the terms influenza and Covid were often used interchangeably by some people). Most of the people on the public side of the table strongly voiced their opinion that we didn’t need a pandemic plan and if there was a plan that contained anything about vaccines or quarantines that they, the people speaking at that time, would not comply. Terms like freedom, civil disobedience, and Constitutional rights were voiced often and loudly. It was the first time I heard the word bio-weapon used to describe a vaccine. It was the first time I understood there were people in my community who saw the county health board as a threat to personal freedoms.
In her book, Wolf describes the process for learning to read. No doubt you’ll agree reading is a very special skill. It is a skill according to Wolf and others in the field, that we have to learn. Reading deeply as Wolf puts it, does all sorts of amazing things to our brain and its development. It is a skill that we can learn, use, and hopefully strengthen over time. Unfortunately it seems from studies that Wolf refers to as well as research done by Sherry Turkle, that the digital age while giving us many useful things, also changes things about who we are. People read less and differently, not only fewer books, but reading less in depth because news, messages, emails, and such are on our screen in shorter snatches of words. Complex ideas, beautiful language and critical thinking seem to be slipping away.
Wolf wrote, “When language and thought atrophy, when complexity wanes and everything becomes more and more the same, we run great risks in society politic – whether from the extremists in a religion or a political organization or, less obviously, from advertisers. Whether cruelly enforced or subtly reinenforced, homogenization in groups, societies, or languages can lead to the elimination of whatever is different or ‘other.’ The protection of diversity within human society is a principle that was embodied in our Constitution and long before that in our genetic cerebrodiversity. As described by geneticists, futurists, and most recently Toni Morrison in her book The Origin of Others, diversity enhances the advancement of our species’ development, the quality of our life on our connected planet, and even our survival.”
As a bookstore owner, I encourage people to read. Reading books and newspapers gives and requires more from me than surfing the Internet. Often I find myself discussing what I read, thinking about the content, the ideas not just in the nanosecond of reading them but throughout the day, the week. And reading Wolf’s book made me examine my responses during that health board meeting, and of others at that meeting. I did learn things listening to those opposed to the pandemic plan. I also experienced a situation that lacked empathy – in how some individuals interrupted the meeting, how one person actually voiced he did not feel respected by board members, how at times I felt an inner smirk at something said. With very real differences and divides evident in Helena, MT and Washington, DC, at the health board meeting and at a dinner party, don’t we need a modicum of respect, a willingness to listen? Or are these evaporating like people reading books? And how do we act empathically when the current divisions feel so daunting?
Maryanne Wolf: Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World
Sherry Turkle: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Sherry Turkle: The Empathy Diaries
Toni Morrsion: The Origin of Others