In Letter Nine of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (2018), Maryanne Wolfe describes what it means to practice “festina lente,” which she translates as “to hurry slowly,” analogizing it to the development of “cognitive patience” (193). Festina lente embodies the cohabitation of digital technology and print reading in our world; we need to be able to quickly and efficiently assess information (a skill gained through technology use), but we also need to be able to slow down to perform deep analysis of information (a skill gained through deep reading). As I walk through Maryanne Wolfe’s ideas (she is a cognitive neuroscientist with a doctorate in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University), I find myself reflecting on how I became a reader (and English major) as well as using the concept of festina lente as a framework for my post-college job search.
Many of the letters in Reader, Come Home deal with how adults engage in deep reading; however, other letters are about how technology may be impacting (both positively and negatively) children’s ability to read deeply. Wolfe’s research on children learning to read leads me to reflect on how I became a reader at the dawn of the digital age. In Letter Five, “The Raising of Children in a Digital Age,” Wolfe cites a statistic from the 2015 RAND report, which states that children ages three to five spent an average of four hours per day on digital devices (108). I was unsettled by the RAND statistic and also surprised at how far our culture has shifted since I was a child. Part of my shock is probably because my parents were careful about digital technology use when I was growing up. My younger brother and I were not allowed to have video games, were granted limited computer time (which had to be matched with reading time), and were not allowed to have phones until we could drive. I bought my first smartphone when I graduated high school. However, just as my brother and I were raised by booklovers, so too did we both grow up to be avid readers.
Some of Wolfe’s research and hypothesizing even supports my parents’ luddite ways. In Letter Five, she describes how stimulation from screens triggers the short-term focus reward centers in the brain; stimulation at a constant rate floods young brains with hormones that reward short-term focus, leaving little room for children to develop the attention needed for long-term focus and deep reading (109). Later in the same letter, Wolfe cites several research studies that show how children’s reading comprehension is better when reading print books rather than reading on screens (116–117). She hypothesizes that reading comprehension is lower for on-screen reading because the constant scrolling tricks the brain into processing what is read on a screen like a film—the brain becomes too overwhelmed with information to accurately process and remember everything (118).
With these thoughts in mind, I recently saw a commercial for Google Nest Mini (a Google Home device) proudly proclaiming that the Nest Mini could “entertain the whole family with new stories from Disney’s Frozen 2.” Similarly, Google Home Mini, in concert with Disney’s Little Golden Books, will play sound effects that go along with certain golden book stories when read aloud. The lack of reading comprehension Wolfe warns against is exemplified in smart home devices that could inhibit children’s reading comprehension if relied on too heavily. Kids might love the visual and aural gimmicks, but they may be unable to retain plot and character information crucial for triggering other important parts of deep reading, such as empathy and perspective taking (116). Perhaps my skepticism towards Google Home is rooted in my growing up years. Every evening for most of my childhood, my parents would read to my brother and I before bed. My mom would read a chapter or two of fiction, and then my dad would read a story from the Bible. I vividly remember being transported to the American frontier as my mom read the Little House on the Prairie series, and I also vividly remember being swept up in the magical whimsy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. From my father’s reading, I began to internalize and remember important biblical stories that would shape my understanding of my faith as I got older.
In Letter Seven, “The Science and Poetry in Learning (and Teaching) to Read,” Wolfe writes, “Empathy and perspective taking are part of the complex woof of feelings and thoughts, whose convergence propels greater understanding” (162–163). Wolfe goes on to describe how empathy and perspective taking lead to one of the most important components of deep reading—the ability to make connections (163). When I spent most evenings of my young life huddled on the couch, my parents’ voices washing over me, they were giving me an important gift: a swelling cadre of resources to pull from to understand and analyze the world. They were encouraging my brain to mimic the feelings of Laura, Mary, Harry, Hermione, and even Mary, Joseph, and Jesus by triggering my mirror neurons, as Wolfe describes in Letter Three (51). “In this sense,” she writes, “when we read fiction, the brain actively simulates the consciousness of another person, including those whom we would never otherwise even imagine knowing” (52).
In addition to empathy, reflection is another important part of the deep reading process, and a crucial part of practicing festina lente. Deep readers have to develop “cognitive patience” in order to reflect on and then process what they have read (193). An example is my writing of this essay. Through reflection, I am processing what I read in Reader, Come Home, which leads me to make connections between the book’s content and my own reading development as a child. In practicing festina lente, I learn how to “hurry slowly” into cognition: “You read quickly (festina), till you are conscious (lente) of the thoughts to comprehend, the beauty to appreciate, the questions to remember, and, when fortunate, the insights to unfold” (Wolfe 193). In relation to new digital technologies, Wolfe argues that we should hurry to meet the future but take the time to examine and research its potential hazards (194). In relation to coming “home,” we should hurry to get to the place where “perception becomes transformed into concepts, when time becomes consciously slowed, and our whole self becomes suffused by the mental cascade where thought and feeling converge” (194).
With my own graduation now on the horizon, I see my task as applying festina lente to the job search. I have identified several potential professions where my deep reading and other soft skills would be useful. While one of my earliest career interests is editing and publishing, I only realized this semester that the reason I enjoy editing is because I like mentoring other people. My involvement in Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), a Christian community on Purdue’s campus, and my past involvement in other Christian groups has often involved leading or mentoring others. My leadership experiences in Christian groups led me to connect activities in my personal life to my professional life during my job search. As an editor, I want to help authors become better writers and encourage them in their writing process. In making these connections between editing, mentoring, and other areas of my life, I’ve had to slow down to process what these connections might mean for me personally and professionally.
My current career focus is nonprofit work, which is also connected to my desire to help others. In the nonprofit sector, I am interested in grant writing, fundraising, development, and event planning. Through research, I learned that many of the positions related to my areas of interest are mid-level to senior positions, so starting out, I need to gain experience simply working in a nonprofit. As I explored my nonprofit interests, I made another connection between my personal life and professional life: In RUF, I co-chair a small team responsible for event planning, and I love helping put on these events. As I’ve explored nonprofit areas and talked to my mom, who directs a nonprofit, I realized that event planning is actually an important role in many organizations. Event planning, whether for one of the nonprofit’s programs or for fundraising purposes, is an important task that many high-level nonprofit administrators find time consuming and exhausting. Someone who enjoys facilitating events would be a valuable asset. To come to this conclusion, though, I had to quickly process large amounts of factual information about working at a nonprofit and then slow down and decide which pieces of information would be helpful to me and analyze how that information would change my course.
Another potential area of employment that could involve leadership, helping others, and event planning is the library sector. In high school, I worked in the children’s room at my local library, and to this day working at the library is one of my favorite jobs that I’ve had. If I worked in a library, I think that I would eventually want to become a head librarian, probably in youth services, which would require some additional schooling. Librarians do many things in addition to ordering books, checking out books, and shelving books. A lot of librarians, especially youth librarians, put together programs for people in the community. If I were a librarian, I would be on the front edge of helping mitigate the effects of digital technology on children’s deep reading, as described in Reader, Come Home.
Regardless of what job I pursue, I have learned how to identify and articulate the skills I’ve gained as an English major. The skills required to perform the deep reading Maryanne Wolfe writes about are just one example. I can explain to employers how my ability to empathize is applicable, whether that be to empathize with an aspiring author, a nonprofit client, or a library patron. My ability to make connections between stories means I can help an author move their plot along, I can see the big picture of social issues affecting nonprofit clients, and I can help people find the stories they need to hear. My ability to practice festina lente means that I can easily identify when the processes of deep reading might be valuable, and then take the time to engage in the kind of deep reading that leads to complete analysis and thorough understanding of a topic.
As I look towards the workplace, I want to hurry slowly into my job search. I know that I need to “hurry” in that I need to be actively working on the various components that help someone get a job: a good resume, a LinkedIn profile, networking, etc. As I hurry to complete these tasks, however, I need to be able to slow down as I accomplish each task. As I revise my LinkedIn profile, I need to take the time to thoroughly read and proofread everything I write and evaluate how I am marketing myself to potential employers. Similarly, I need to look at the big picture with my resume as well to see how it fits into my marketing strategy. And while I may hurry to find people to conduct informational interviews with to add to my network, as I am doing an informational interview, I need to slow down and listen to the advice and wisdom being offered by my interviewee. And I know that once I find a job, the practice of festina lente will not be over. The dance of quick information processing and in-depth analysis will be something I perform all my life, whether that be in a work setting, personal setting, or in my own deep reading as I live my life of letters.
Google Nest. “Disney’s Frozen 2 Stories on Nest Mini.” YouTube, 4 November 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuRWUwUSlZk
Made by Google. “Read along with Google Home Mini and Disney’s Little Golden Books.” YouTube, 29 October 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NH7HI2BW6aE
Wolfe, Maryanne. Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. HarperCollins, 2018.
Hannah Spaulding is a senior at Purdue majoring in English Literature.