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Proust and the Squid Hardcover – September 4, 2007

4.3 out of 5 stars 103 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University, integrates psychology and archaeology, linguistics and education, history and neuroscience in a truly path-breaking look at the development of the reading brain-a complicated phenomenon that Wolf seeks to chronicle from both the early history of humanity and the early stages of an individual's development ("unlike its component parts such as vision and speech... reading has no direct genetic program passing it on to future generations"). Along the way, Wolf introduces concepts like "word poverty," the situation in which children, by age five, have heard 32 million less words than their counterparts (with chilling long-term effects), and makes time for amusing and affecting anecdotes, like the only child she knew to fake a reading disorder (attempting to get back into his beloved literacy training program). Though it could probably command a book of its own, the sizable third section of the book covers the complex topic of dyslexia, explaining clearly and expertly "what happens when the brain can't learn to read." One of those rare books that synthesizes cutting edge, interdisciplinary research with the inviting tone of a curious, erudite friend (think Malcolm Gladwell), Wolf's first book for a general audience is an eye-opening winner, and deserves a wide readership.
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“[Maryanne Wolf] displays extraordinary passion and perceptiveness concerning the reading brain, its miraculous achievements and tragic dysfunctions.” (BookForum)

“Everything Wolf says makes sense....She clearly knows her stuff.” (Washington Post Book World)

“Brilliant and eye-opening.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)

“...intriguing...” (New Scientist)

“Brilliant and eye-opening.” (Albany Times Union)

“Fascinating....Wolf restores our awe of the human brain.” (Associated Press)

“[Wolf’s] conversational style, reflective comments and insights from work with children...create a narrative flow and bright tone.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

“The squid of Wolf’s title represents the neurobiological approach to the study of reading....Given the panic that takes hold of humanists when the decline of reading is discussed, her cold-blooded perspective is opportune.” (The New Yorker)

“A book worth talking about.” (U.S. News & World Report)

“Enjoyable....Wolf, with remarkable agility in a relatively compact book (intended for both aficionados and the uninitiated), transitions seamlessly between disciplines as diverse as linguistics, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and archeology, among others. Her voice comes through clearly; she is fascinated by reading and shares that energy.” (New England Journal of Medicine)

“Wolf’s alarm about the spread of semi- literacy among the young is obviously justified, and her book provokes thought about it as only reading can.” (Sunday Times (London))

“This humane and fascinating book...is a paean to what Proust, über-reader, called ‘that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude,’ to all that has been and can be achieved for individuals and for mankind through literacy.” (The Evening Standard (London))

“Blindingly fascinating...detailed and scholarly....There’s a lot of difficult material in here. But it’s worth the effort....For people interested in language, this is a must. You’ll find yourself focusing on words in new ways. Read it slowly--it will take time to sink in.” (The Sunday Telegraph)

“Proust and the Squid is an inspiring celebration of the science of reading....Wolf’s insights are fascinating....Proust and the Squid has much to offer on this important--perhaps the most important--subject” (The Guardian (London))

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 308 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (September 4, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060186399
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060186395
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #342,467 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Dr. Richard G. Petty on September 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
What is it about humans that makes them so different from the other inhabitants of this planet?

It is not our big brains: many species do just fine with a much simpler model.

It is not our instincts and intuitions: many species have us beaten there as well.

And it is certainly not our empathy or compassion: we can see that those are highly developed in dozens of other species.

The real difference seems to be the way in which we can communicate information that endures. Communications that survive us and can be passed to people that we have never met.

Complex languages that were able to meld the experiences of many senses were the first step. We can tell stories that contain much more than information: they contain and evoke emotions, memories and even tastes and smells.

The second step is far more recent, and it the strange alchemy that in the last few thousand years enabled our ancestors to record, interpret and teach the significance of squiggles and scratchings.

This engaging book focuses on a question that many of us have asked at some time or other. How did we come upon the unlikely skill call reading? How did our brains achieve this extraordinary feat, working only with neurological systems that had never tried to make sense of systematized rule-based visually presented material?
And what happens in our brain when our eyes scan a line of type? Why do some of us, or some of our children, find it difficult to process the visual information locked in words?

Maryanne Wolf is a professor at Tufts University, where she directs the Center for Reading and Language Research and in this book she offers explanations for these and many other questions.
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Format: Hardcover
I was attracted to this book by the title: What could Proust and a Squid have in common? As it turned out, squids make only two cameo appearances in the book on pages 5-6 and 226 (probably to justify the title in references to the early use of squids in neuroscience studies and for conjecture about passing along genetic traits that make survival more difficult), but Proust in pretty mainstream throughout the book as a resource and reference for describing the richness that reading can bring to individual experience.

Professor Wolf has written a multidisciplinary book that is mind-boggling in its breadth. You'll learn everything from how writing and alphabets developed to why Socrates disfavored reading to how mental processes vary among dyslexics who are reading different languages to the best ways for diagnosing and overcoming reading difficulties.

Yet unlike most multidisciplinary books, this one is very brief and compact. But that compactness is misleading; Proust and the Squid is a challenging book to read and contemplate. Only good readers with a lot of background in literature and neuroscience can probably grasp this book. What's more, there are vast numbers of references that you can pursue if you want to know more.

The writing style makes the book denser than it needed to be. Professor Wolf makes matters worse for lay readers by insisting on the correct scientific names throughout, when the ordinary names would have made the material easier to grasp. As a result, at times you'll feel like you are taking a course in disciplinary vocabulary.
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I think the information in this book is very important, especially the author's main point, that reading changes the brain. However, even though I'm an avid reader of all kinds of books, from graphic novels to scientific nonfiction, from picture books to adult novels, I found this book in particular difficult to read. The sentences are long and convoluted, filled with scientific terms that aren't really explained to a lay reader. From the way it has been advertised and reviewed, this book APPEARS to be aimed at the lay reader: somebody who is interested in reading and reading comprehension. However, the way the book is written, it seems addressed only to academics and perhaps people in law -- those who spend their days reading long, complex sentences that vary little in style or tone.

I liked the content of this book so much that I'd really like to give the book four stars, but I just can't, because, ironically, this book on reading and reading comprehension does not seem to take into consideration what makes a reading experience pleasurable. I maintain that even factual information can be presented in an accurate and well-written way that makes reading it a pleasure. Plus, there is no humor at all in this book. Very dry.
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In this fascinating work, which might be viewed as an introduction to the cognitive neuroscience of reading, the author gives the reader an excellent overview of the cultural origins of writing/reading, the brain mechanisms that are responsible for the ability to read, and the factors behind the inability to read. Written for a general audience, the book does contain some information of a more technical nature for those readers who might have a general background in neuroscience or cognitive neuroscience. Those readers who need more can find much more detailed information in the references. Everything about this book is interesting, especially to those who may be described as "obsessive" readers that spend a great majority of their life reading and are interested in knowing more about the cognitive mechanisms behind the reading act.

There are many interesting discussions and questions that are provoked by the reading of this book. Some of these include:
- Once one has achieved what the author has called "expert" reading status, what is the effect of biological age on this status? Does biological aging affect the "rate of processing" of textual information and if so to what degree? Along these same lines, is it more difficult for an older person to learn how to read as compared to young children?

- Erotic literature has the propensity for physical arousal, so does its reading evoke even more of the imaginative properties of the reading brain than does other types of literature or less? In addition, it would seem that the limbic system would play a greater role in erotic literature, since more emphasis is being placed on attention and imagination than comprehension.
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