- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (August 26, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060933844
- ISBN-13: 978-0060933845
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (107 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain Reprint Edition
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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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“[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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Top customer reviews
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.
What makes this so interesting is that she begins with the long history of how the brain is affected by revolutions. No, not the revolutions spawned by war—although that surely does affect brain development. Rather, Wolf is talking about how the brain gets “rewired” when there is a revolution in ways of thinking. The alphabet was one such major revolution and she explores this in the “reading brain” (indeed, the subtitle to the book is “The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”) by going back into history and exploring Socrates’ thoughts about this new idea. Socrates was unalterably opposed to the invention of the alphabet! He firmly believed that young men needed the guidance of an older person—a philosopher-- to teach them the values of the culture. That would achieve a “proper education” for them. He worried that if the alphabet came into broad usage, the youth would lose that guidance. (And, I might add, with a change in values there would come an inevitable change in the direction of society).
Coming into the modern era, the author explores new implications by delving into the use of functional MRI (fMRI) and drawing on other modern research to build a picture of how the brain operates. She emphasizes that we are on the cusp of another revolution—with profound implications as great or even greater than the alphabet introduced. She is talking of the digital revolution: computers, cell phones, digital TVs, the internet with its multi-faceted tools and the many applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and a myriad of other off-shoots. Her argument is that the brain is being re-wired differently than it was when the alphabet came into use.
Why do younger members of society “pick up” the use of digital devices so easily? Because we expose them to digital devices at an early age when the brain is in the process of development. In other words, the philosopher is no longer at the helm of early education. The digital device is!
Why do so many members of society, the older generation, have such an up-hill challenge when faced with the digital revolution? The simple answer is that our brains were wired for reading—not for the use of a computer. That does not mean that the older generation cannot learn to use the new technology. It simply means that there is a greater challenge to learn it.
And can we understand the extreme fringe—the Luddite who no longer sees his job being destroyed, but attacks technology because he sees his “way of life” in serious jeopardy! Does Ted Kacyzinsky, infamously known as the “Unabomber,” fit into this narrow nitche?
This book is extremely valuable for its insights and should be profitable reading for sociologists, psychologists, remedial reading experts, anthropologists, and anyone who wants to understand where we are headed in our immediate future.
This book is fully documented with copious end-notes and a detailed index. Alas, there is no bibliography—not even a select one—although the list of sources at the end might provide material for some further research. The 9 chapters are replete with valuable diagrams and drawings of the brain accomplished by artist, Catherine Stoodley.
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.