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Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain Kindle Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
From the Back Cover
Lively, erudite, and rich with examples, Proust and the Squid asserts that the brain that examined the tiny clay tablets of the Sumerians was a very different brain from the one this is immersed in today’s technology-driven literacy. The potential transformations in this changed reading brain, Wolf argues, have profound implications for every child and for the intellectual development of our species.
- ASIN : B00NLL4PFG
- Publisher : Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (August 1, 2017)
- Publication date : August 1, 2017
- Language : English
- File size : 4190 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 316 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #186,845 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The author has covered three principal topics. As she explains in the first chapter: "This book consists of three areas of knowledge: the early history of how our species learned to read, from the time of the Sumerians to Socrates; the developmental life cycle of humans as they learn to read in ever more sophisticated ways over time; and the story and science of what happens when the brain can't learn to read."
Admittedly, rather late in life, I finally read The Odyssey . The version was a new one by Barry B. Powell. In his introduction, he posits the theory that the Greek alphabet was invented around 800 B.C., in order to record the poetic rhythm of Homer's epic tale. Thus I was particularly attentive to Wolf's account of how writing systems evolved, starting with the "bird tracks," of the Sumerians through the Akkadians (a language I have only recently become aware of - apparently there are a few hundred people in the world still trying to keep the language alive) and on to the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians. Each of these languages contained a pictorial element. It was only when the Greeks invented their language, which was largely and directly related to the phonetics of the language, that a true alphabet was established.
In human evolution the ability to read has developed only recently. Wolf makes the point that we are not "hard-wired" to read. For each of us, we must learn - sometimes painfully, and with limited success - to develop those neurological pathways that make sense of the small, repetitive shapes on a piece of paper - or now, increasingly, on a digital screen. I found this section fascinating too. For example, she cites the work of three Chinese neurologists in the 1930's who studied the case of a bi-lingual businessman who had a severe stroke. He had completely lost his ability to read Chinese, but could still read English. It required completely different sections of the brain to read a more pictorial based alphabet as opposed to the limited characters in the alphabet used to write English.
Another section that strongly resonated concerned re-reading books at different periods in one's life, deriving different meanings depending on the evolving experiences in one's own life. Wolf specifically mentioned George Eliot's Middlemarch (Penguin Classics) which she had read several times, which was precisely the theme of Rebecca Mead's recently published My Life in Middlemarch . I too have been re-reading a number of works first read 30-40 years ago, finding new meaning, and re-assessing.
The last third of the book dealt with those who have difficulties reading, and are often labeled dyslexic, a term that Wolf says has no real meaning. She does cover the number of areas in which individuals may have deficiencies in their ability to read fluently. These deficiencies can be unique, or overlapping. And it seems that the brains of these individuals are simply different, with more equality between the left and right hemispheres. And "dyslexics" seem to be more creative. She names numerous historical individuals who appear to have had that problem, and whose names are definitely remembered today, like Einstein. She also reveals it is a personal issue, since her son has had reading problems.
I did have some problems with this book. First and foremost, Wolf repeatedly makes the point that Socrates was opposed to the transition from the oral to written medium for conveying knowledge, and attempts to connect that to the transition from knowledge obtained through books to that obtained from the Internet. But she never really develops this theme; she just raises it repeatedly. I felt particular unease - though I admit doing it myself, in deciding a book of Diane Arbus' photographs was not suitable viewing material for my once-upon-a-time seven year old daughter - to Wolf's theme that access to knowledge should be "guided." That concept is right out of the playbook of many a totalitarian state... or, increasingly, wantabees. Who does the "guiding" and with what criteria was another topic she did not address. I also felt she succumbed to a congenital weakness of academics: "plugging" the work of colleagues for no particular purpose, other than, the "plug."
Finally, and it is a particular concern of mine. With all the effort that is expended on learning how to read - to obtain that "eureka" moment that Wolf beautifully described in one case, why do so very few people continue to read serious works once the school assignments are finished? Also, unaddressed. Overall, for Wolf's work, a very informative 4-star rating.
Thus, "Proust" and the Squid" speaks to a variety of readers. It speaks to those interested in current scientific research and the way it has increased understanding of the neurological processes that make reading possible. It addresses those concerned about the cultural importance of reading in a digital age. And it speaks to parents interested in how to cultivate a love of reading in their children, as well as to parents of dyslexic children concerned about the best approach to take to foster more fluent reading. Of course, these audiences will surely sometimes overlap, but I think the weakness of "Proust and the Squid" is its difficulty in adhering to a single voice.
Sometimes the book is lyrical in its use of quotation and philosophy to convey Wolf's devotion to the importance of reading. Sometimes its tone is technical, as it discusses the structure of the brain, while at other times the tone is practical, the voice of the reading specialist offering recommendations. These shifts mean that some readers will find parts of the book more interesting than others. There is also quite a bit of repetition.
"Proust and the Squid" has much to recommend it (depending on your particular interest), and its strengths make up for the times when your attention may wander.
Top reviews from other countries
All in all, I enjoyed the book. I have to agree with a lot of what Donald Mitchell says, especially as regards the writing style and the weakness of the 'Proust and the Squid' metaphor - it's nothing more than an attractive title to pique interest. I also found that the author liked to blow her own trumpet a little too much - naturally, she focuses on her own research and any other work that backs it up, but unlike true scientific spirit and philosophy would decree, she does not admit much to the great inaccuracy and inconsistency in the field. Her theory does not represent the consensus in the literature, although you'd be forgiven for thinking that was the case by the way she writes about her work! At times the book felt like a desperate attempt to impress the reader, either with her research, her family history, or her use of vocabulary.
The big focus on neuroscience and brain imaging is hardly unsurprising given her background, but neuroscientific findings are so limited on their own. There is good evidence for the Phonological Deficit Hypothesis as an explanation of dyslexia, which, as a cognitive-level theory, is not mentioned in the book.
The book did teach me about the development of writing systems (cuneiform, hieroglyphics, etc.) and about Socrates' contention with written language, representing "unguided and uncritical access to information". I'm not sure whether to view the internet debate as positive or negative - it certainly speared me on to further work on the subject (e.g. Untangling the Web, Aleks Krotoski), although on the other hand it did seem as though perhaps the book had enough on its plate as it was.
Above all, the book reinforced the message that "reading never just happens" - learning to read is a long and onerous process that relies on so many 'primitive' capacities. As a result, there is a lot of possibility for malfunctioning and cross-wiring, which have disasterous consequences in societies that place huge emphasis on decoding and extracting meaning from text.