Proust and the Squid, The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

At the time of writing this book, Maryanne Wolf was a professor of child development at Tufts University and the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research. This highly decorated work pursues the history, development, and value of reading and includes the scientific understanding of the evolving reading brain. Wolf does not believe that brains have a reading gene, but the design of the brain allows for the invention of the ability to read (p. 216). Learning to read changes the visual cortex of the brain, she contends (p. 147). Wolf outlines her book as follows:

The book begins by celebrating the beauty, variety, and transformative capacities of the origins of writing; proceeds to the dramatic new landscapes of the development of the reading brain and its various pathways to acquisition; and ends with difficult questions about the virtues and dangers in what lies ahead (p. xi).

She also supplies her own goal:

The goal of this book is to integrate these disciplines to present new perspectives on three aspects of written language: the evolution of the reading brain (how the human brain learned to read); its development (how the young brain learns to read and how reading changes us); and its variations (when the brain can’t learn to read) (p. 18).

While there are a number of views among scholars, Wolf traces writing (and reading) back about 6,000 years, possibly to Egypt (p. 43). Today children learn about 88,700 words, 9,000 of those by the third grade (p. 123) and, while trying to teach children to read before they are ready may actually be counterproductive (p. 96), reading to small children is one of the most helpful things to do to insure later reading develops (pp. 20, 82, 87, 102-103). Scientist still do not have a good handle on how people learn to read, nor do they know with certainty why some struggle with reading. Those trying to help those with Dyslexia, for example, have yet to find a cure, and the reasons for such learning disabilities are many (pp. 27, 198-200).

It is interesting that Socrates was a great defender of oral learning and dialogue, but opposed the spread of the Greek alphabet and the acquisition of literacy (pp. 18-19, 50, 69-78, 220, 226). His concern was that the written language would stunt the analytical process and truncate memorization. In essence, deep, critical thinking would be lost as writing and reading would put an end to dialogue, which he greatly prized. Wolf has similar concerns as the modern reader shifts to digital, and internet, reading. Will the abundance of easily accessible information challenge analytical and critical thinking (p. 16), altering the reading brain (pp. 221-226)? Digital reading, Wolf fears, could remove the time needed to think and analyze deeply (pp. 221-226).

I found Proust and the Squid a most interesting read. Some of the technical and scientific theories about the brain and how it processes reading were beyond my grasp, but information about how we learn to read and how the brain is affected by how we read was valuable. Not everyone would appreciate this volume but for those interested in its topics it is worth the time.

by Maryanne Wolf (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2007), 306 pp., paper $10.89

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel

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