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Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Non-Fiction Reviews

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf 1
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
by Maryanne Wolf
Harper, 320 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

What is Reading?

Have you ever pondered how those implicitly intricate symbols on the page transform into life-altering experiences for a few of us? What is the basis for this uniquely human fascination for reading, and what can that fascination teach us about ourselves?

Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, broaches these questions and offers a comprehensive view of the history, the present, and the likely future of this beloved skill.

The misleading title is a reference to the French novelist’s description of reading as an intellectual “sanctuary” and to the use of the squid brain for neurological research in the 1950s. These seemingly unrelated symbols are meant to indicate Wolf’s approach to writing this book. She marries the cultural-historical (referred to by the former) with the biological to paint a well-rounded picture of reading and reading disabilities.

In Wolf’s view, the Sumerian cuneiform was a landmark accomplishment in the development of writing. For the first time since the beginning of civilization, “symbols rapidly became less pictographic and more logographic and abstract.” In fact, this change forced a reworking of human brain circuits:

“First, considerably more pathways in the visual and visual association regions would be necessary in order to decode what would eventually become hundreds of cuneiform characters…Second, the conceptual demands of a logosyllabary would inevitable involve more cognitive systems, which, in turn, would require more connections to visual areas in the occipital lobes, to language areas in the temporal lobes, and to the frontal lobes.”

It’s a mutually reinforcing relationship, Wolf observes: “The brain’s design made reading possible, and reading’s design changed the brain in multiple, critical, still evolving ways.” Some of these changes come across as so radical that only the realization of our being at a safe distance from such physiological alchemy introduces a semblance of acceptability.

Her history of reading offers interesting insights into the great arguments of our age. She likens Socrates’ reservations about the transition from an oral to a literate culture to her own worries about the increasing digitalization of all forms of youth culture today:

“First, Socrates posited that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual’s intellectual life; second, he regarded the new–and much less stringent– requirements that written language placed both on memory and on the internalization of knowledge as catastrophic; and third, he passionately advocated the unique role the oral language plays in the development of morality and virtue in society.”

Wolf applies each of the above criteria to her questions about digitization, and finds Socrates’ arguments remarkable prescient and cautionary. Perhaps our learning today is of a lesser form than the classical Hellenic variety, and our future generations may reap the woes of rapidly advancing computerization.

Wolf is a sympathetic writer, sensitizing us to the need for looking at the world of reading from a child’s perspective. If we are to understand reading disabilities better, we would need to get into the science of the reading brain. For this, she sets the reader a task. On the well-assumed condition that a reader of this book would be unfamiliar with the Chinese alphabet, she makes us compare two identical sets of Chinese letters.

It is a difficult process that needs close inspection for the reader to arrive at an answer. Had these been English letters, Wolf seems to be gently nudging us into acceding, we adults would have taken no time to answer. But since it is a new script, it demands our time and attention. So it is with children, and it is important to understand this difference.

Several such examples make the reader aware of the fine art of reading, its hidden wonders and dauntless vigor. In a chapter titled “The Unending Story of Reading’s Development,” Wolf cites the case of nine-year-old Luke, who recommended himself for her reading intervention program.

It turned out that Luke did not have any reading disabilities per se, but Wolf’s team had never come across “a child with a more profound problem in the time it took to name a letter and read a word.” That is, Luke’s was a case of moving from “accuracy to fluency in the higher stages of learning.”

Wolf then delves into a neurological exploration of the time line of mental processes that a fully expert reader uses, and in so doing, makes us better appreciate the nuances of reading. From here to dyslexia, which occupies the latter parts of the book, Wolf switches between biology and humanities to drive home her point.

Reminding the reader that the likes of Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein were dyslexics, Wolf ponders whether we can explain the “preponderance of creativity and ‘thinking outside the box’ in many people with dyslexia?” Wolf’s rhetorical questions are tackled with grace and one always feels richer for having spent time with her.

Thanks to umpteen illustrations of the brain at various stages of the process of reading, and Wolf’s revelation of a dyslexic son, the book rises from a merely professional tome to a personal and highly accessible project.

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