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Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain Paperback – August 26, 2008
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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.” (Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers)
“[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)
About the Author
Maryanne Wolf, the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, was the director of the Tufts Center for Reading and Language Research. She currently directs the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, and is working with the Dyslexia Center at the UCSF School of Medicine and with Curious Learning: A Global Literacy Project, which she co-founded. She is the recipient of multiple research and teaching honors, including the highest awards by the International Dyslexia Association and the Australian Learning Disabilities Association. She is the author of Proust and the Squid (HarperCollins), Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press), and more than 160 scientific publications.
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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.