- 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: 4.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (105 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #27,408 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.
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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. The main thrust of her research is cognitive and biological so the book focuses on writing and the evolution of the brain. However, she does not ignore the cultural and historical contexts in which writing developed.
She focuses on three fundamental principles that operate throughout the human brain:
1. The capacity to make new connections among older structures
2. The capacity to form or appropriate regions of the brain that are specialized for recognizing and extracting patterns in a mass of information
3. The ability to learn to recruit and connect information from these regions of the brain
As a rider to the last point, the recruiting and connecting of different areas of the brain occurs automatically. If you think about someone you will usually be able to associate a visual image of him or her with a sound, smell and emotion. This associative process usually happens without conscious effort.
Maryanne's work indicates that these three principles of design provide the neural machinery essential to reading, and she spends some time explaining the evolution of what she calls the "reading brain." This is not a dry academic exercise: understanding the evolution of reading promises to help us make sense of problems like dyslexia, and it is her insights into that common problem that occupy the second half of the book.
She reveals that that one of her sons suffers from this disability, and discusses something not widely known. There are a number of subtypes of dyslexia, and, as is common with neurological deficits, the brain often compensates. Giving people special talent in fields that emphasize pattern recognition and spatial creativity. I knew someone with disabling dyslexia who set about building a house. Without any kind of diagrams or written plan he was able to calculate the precise amount, shape and size of the timber that would be needed. When he finished the job several months later he was left with only one two foot plank. The remainder of his calculations were spot on. And it does seem that it is the brain that bestows this kind of gift, rather than the person over-compensating for a disability.
Maryanne speaks approvingly of the extraordinary insights of one of my mentors, the late Norman Geschwind. He and a colleague did some fascinating work on a region of the brain called the planum temporale, sadly misspelled in the index. So it surprised me that she did not mention any of the work on disturbances of language with relative preservation of reading in schizophrenia, It would have been interesting to have her take on that.
So why "Proust and the Squid?" Maryanne uses the French novelist Marcel Proust as a metaphor. He believed that reading gives us access to countless different realities that would otherwise be sealed from us. The squid is to pay tribute to the creature who has given so much to neurological research.
I found the book an easy read, but I am a neuroscientist with a particular interest in thought and language, and I always try to imagine what a book might hold for a non-specialist. In places it may be a little difficult for the general reader. Before submitting this review I asked some friends to look over a few sections, and some left them slightly baffled.
I think that scientists have a responsibility to explain their work to the public that pays most of the bills. But I know from personal experience that popularization does not always come easily to people trained to write and communicate in a cautious, unemotional and reserved tone. It is different in the classroom, where the good teacher is expected to lighten up a bit, and pepper his or her teaching with humor and anecdotes. But once we start typing, our old habits return!
I mention this because Maryanne shares the concern of many, that the advent of the computer culture may lead to the atrophy of the "reading brain," which could become no more than an occasionally used device for communicating factual data stripped of all emotion. We already know that many young people fail to comprehend that the abbreviations of the text message cannot be used in school reports. "Texting" is easier and does not required sustained attention. Since humans were never genetically designed to read, such simple solutions may wreck the "reading brain." If young children are not read to, they nearly always fail to learn to read well themselves. Is it already too late for the youngest generation?
This is a fine book by a world expert. It does require a little effort, but it is well worthwhile. I particular recommend it to people who have children with dyslexia. I would also recommend it to people who have dyslexia themselves, but I do not think that an audio version is available yet.
Richard G. Petty, MD, author of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life
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. At other times, Professor Wolf engages in a penchant for long, abstract sentences: "What is historically humbling about Sumerian writing and pedagogy is not their understanding of morphological principles, but their realization that the teaching of reading must begin with explicit attention to the principles characteristics of oral language." This sentence could be rewritten as "Most impressively, Sumerians developed a written language that made reading easier to learn by visually reproducing what was spoken." Obviously, her rendition is more creative . . . but I like mine better.
Here is what was new to me: Reading involves complex mental processes that are not natural to the brain's earliest functions. As a result, new neural connections need to be developed in the right order if someone is to be a good reader. Various brain scan tests have illuminated this finding and those neural pathways are well illustrated and described in this book. But there are different ways that those neural connections can be made, some of which will make reading difficult.
The book's strength is in providing you with a sense of how humans learned how to develop written language and read it rapidly . . . and gain greatly from reading. The book also is good in the area of making the case for those who can't read aren't deficient, rather than are different in ways that offer other potential advantages such as creativity. If someone in your family doesn't read well, you'll love that part of the message.
Where I thought the book was weakest was in worrying about the implications of highly condensed (and possibly inaccurate) online information substituting for traditional reading of books and articles. To me, it seemed like much ado about nothing. Human curiosity will always drive forward learning, something that Professor Wolf doesn't address. Provide that curiosity with more tools and resources, and more learning will take place. Here's an example. Today I was finishing my proofreading of my latest book. In the past, I had researchers diligently check each quotation for accuracy and source. Inevitably, there would be mistakes that weren't caught and made it into my books. By using the internet to crosscheck the sources this time, I was able to do the task much better and in less time . . . correcting many mistakes in the reference sources in my library. Having had this experience, I'll probably do more seeking of quotations directly from the internet in the future . . . and that will probably improve the quality of my quotations.
Bravo, Professor Wolf!
Most Recent Customer Reviews
The topic was mostly as I envisioned it, but I had a series of digressions.Read more