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

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

by Maryanne Wolf


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"Human beings were never born to read," writes Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and child development expert Maryanne Wolf. Reading is a human invention that reflects how the brain rearranges itself to learn something new. In this ambitious, provocative book, Wolf chronicles the remarkable journey of the reading brain not only over the past five thousand years, since writing began, but also over the course of a single child's life, showing in the process why children with dyslexia have reading difficulties and singular gifts.

Lively, erudite, and rich with examples, Proust and the Squid asserts that the brain that examined the tiny clay tablets of the Sumerians was a very different brain from the one that is immersed in today's technology-driven literacy. The potential transformations in this changed reading brain, Wolf argues, have profound implications for every child and for the intellectual development of our species.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060933845
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/26/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 81,793
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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.

Read an Excerpt

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

Chapter One

Reading Lessons From Proust and the Squid

I believe that reading, in its original essence, [is] that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.
—Marcel Proust

Learning involves the nurturing of nature.
—Joseph LeDoux

We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors' invention could come about only because of the human brain's extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain's ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain's design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become.

This book tells the story of the reading brain, in the context of our unfolding intellectual evolution. That story is changing before our eyes and under the tips of our fingers. The next few decades will witness transformations in our ability to communicate, as we recruit new connections in the brain that will propel our intellectual development in new and different ways. Knowing what reading demands of our brain and knowing how it contributes to our capacity to think, to feel, to infer, and to understand other humanbeings is especially important today as we make the transition from a reading brain to an increasingly digital one. By coming to understand how reading evolved historically, how it is acquired by a child, and how it restructured its biological underpinnings in the brain, we can shed new light on our wondrous complexity as a literate species. This places in sharp relief what may happen next in the evolution of human intelligence, and the choices we might face in shaping that future.

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. Taken together, this cumulative knowledge about reading both celebrates the vastness of our accomplishment as the species that reads, records, and goes beyond what went before, and directs our attention to what is important to preserve.

There is something less obvious that this historical and evolutionary view of the reading brain gives us. It provides a very old and very new approach to how we teach the most essential aspects of the reading process—both for those whose brains are poised to acquire it and for those whose brains have systems that may be organized differently, as in the reading disability known as dyslexia. Understanding these unique hardwired systems—which are preprogrammed generation after generation by instructions from our genes—advances our knowledge in unexpected ways that have implications we are only beginning to explore.

Interwoven through the book's three parts is a particular view of how the brain learns anything new. There are few more powerful mirrors of the human brain's astonishing ability to rearrange itself to learn a new intellectual function than the act of reading. Underlying the brain's ability to learn reading lies its protean capacity to make new connections among structures and circuits originally devoted to other more basic brain processes that have enjoyed a longer existence in human evolution, such as vision and spoken language. We now know that groups of neurons create new connections and pathways among themselves every time we acquire a new skill. Computer scientists use the term "open architecture" to describe a system that is versatile enough to change—or rearrange—to accommodate the varying demands on it. Within the constraints of our genetic legacy, our brain presents a beautiful example of open architecture. Thanks to this design, we come into the world programmed with the capacity to change what is given to us by nature, so that we can go beyond it. We are, it would seem from the start, genetically poised for breakthroughs.

Thus the reading brain is part of highly successful two-way dynamics. Reading can be learned only because of the brain's plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually. For example, at the neuronal level, a person who learns to read in Chinese uses a very particular set of neuronal connections that differ in significant ways from the pathways used in reading English. When Chinese readers first try to read in English, their brains attempt to use Chinese-based neuronal pathways. The act of learning to read Chinese characters has literally shaped the Chinese reading brain. Similarly, much of how we think and what we think about is based on insights and associations generated from what we read. As the author Joseph Epstein put it, "A biography of any literary person ought to deal at length with what he read and when, for in some sense, we are what we read."

These two dimensions of the reading brain's development and evolution—the personal-intellectual and the biological—are rarely described together, but there are critical and wonderful lessons to be discovered in doing just that. In this book I use the celebrated French novelist Marcel Proust as metaphor and the largely underappreciated squid as analogy for two very different aspects of reading. Proust saw reading as a kind of intellectual "sanctuary," where human beings have access to thousands of different realities they might never encounter or understand otherwise. Each of these new realities is capable of transforming readers' intellectual lives without ever requiring them to leave the comfort of their armchairs.

Scientists in the 1950s used the long central axon of the shy but cunning squid to . . .

Proust and the Squid
The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
. Copyright © by Maryanne Wolf. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
keely_chace on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wow! I loved this book. Read it and be amazed at your incredible reading brain--even if you were someone who had a heck of a time learning to read. I especially liked the parallels Wolf draws between Socrates' objections to the transition, from the oral culture of ancient Greece, to the reading culture made possible by the revolutionary Greek alphabet, and the somewhat worrisome transition today, from a words-on-the-page reading culture that tends to encourage critical thinking, to a digital, hyper-linked, image-heavy, screen-reading culture.
MusicMom41 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a fascinating study of the ¿reading brain¿ with an added dash of a brief history of the rise of written language (so we would have something to read!). After reading this book I am in awe that anyone learns to read. Are brain is not ¿programmed¿ for reading. The brain of each individual has to start from scratch developing new pathways that eventually will lead to reading skills. This is why children who get a late start, not being introduced to books and stories at a very young age, often never get beyond the rudimentary level of decoding and seldom develop into expert readers. I think every parent and teacher of young children should read this book.Since I am a ¿squid¿ I was most fascinated by the last section of the book: WHEN THE BRAIN CAN¿T LEARN TO READ. This section discusses the problems facing the dyslexic child. I was one of the lucky ones. I wasn¿t diagnosed but I had two parents a some excellent teachers who worked with me and pushed me until I developed the skills I needed and by the time I was in third grade (the time when the dyslexic usually gets left in the dust) I had developed enough skill that I was able to keep up although no one could understand why I couldn¿t seem to master spelling! However, I have always been a ¿slow¿ reader compared to my peers¿those who read voraciously usually become quite fast. I now know why. Reading is a `Left Brain¿ activity for the most part, although the Right Brain does have some work to do in the process. For dyslexics, the left brain paths for reading never develop; our reading paths develop in the right brain, which does not work as quickly so there is always a ¿delay¿ in the process for us. This is also why most dyslexics¿even the brilliant ones¿usually don¿t become expert readers. Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Thomas Alva Edison are three of the brilliant ones who developed their talents in other areas. This goes on my list of best books of the year and gets 5 stars!
rivkat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Some interesting stuff on differences in written languages and how they affect reading in the brain, including problems with reading: dyslexia and similar problems manifest differently depending on how closely a written language correlates with sounds as pronounced. Wolf also focuses on the importance of ¿loving laps¿ for children learning to read, associating reading with good things, and argues that we¿re doing a really bad job with struggling readers because we don¿t pay enough attention to fluency/automaticity if it hasn¿t already developed in the early grades.
teaperson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An intriguing look at your brain on books. The book delves into both the evolutionary history of reading, the nitty-gritty of how the brain adapts itself to this very complex skill, and the ways in which that process goes wrong (ie, dyslexia). Most intriguingly, the author tries to draw an analogy between the transition from oral to written culture, to the transition between written and digital culture. Some things were lost (the ability to really Socratically question knowledge), but much was gained (the time to think deeply and keep a cultural history alive).
Yiggy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The subject matter of this book is very interesting, and has that self-referential aspect to it that makes books about the brain and consciousness so fun. Like holding a mirror up to itself, Wolf's book is about whats going on in the brain when the reader is reading. Wolf also recapitulates the historical development of the written word and how our brains continually have to adapt and relearn this skill in each new individual. My only complaint about the book is that Wolf's writing feels clunky and redundant at times.
markflanagan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Despite some fascinating history and some very essential information about language development in young children, this book is a little heavy in its neuroscience content for the average reader.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was moved professionally. Students of my past, present and future will benefit from my exploration of a compelling book. I dabbled in Proust a little to remind me of the parallels that were explored. If you teach struggling students of any age, this book validates what you know to be true. It gives hope ,inspiration and an intellectual buzz.
TrialofK More than 1 year ago
I bought this book with expectation of a book that is scientifically factual. Instead I got a long winded book that contradicts itself and justifies the abilities of Maryanne Wolf's dyslexic son. On page 20 she states "Learning to read begins the first time an infant is held and read a story. How often this happens, or fails to happen, in the first five years of childhood turns out to be one of the best predictors of later reading." On page 96 she states nearly the opposite "the many efforts to teach a child to read before four or five years of age are biologically precipitate and potentially counterproductive for many children." Then we learn her son is dyslexic on page 21. On the very next page we then learn that she believes Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and no less than Leonardo Da Vinci and August Rodin among others are also Dyslexic. My problem is that Dyslexia cannot be post mortem diagnosed. She states "What is it about the dyslexic brain that seems linked in some people to unparalleled creativity in their professions, which often involve design, spacial skills and the recognition of patterns?" So we have come from scientific studies to personal observation and unproven hypothesis, all to make her son into something special for being dyslexic. Chapter 8 is all about people with dyslexia, including her son, being superior to the rest of us without dyslexia. If only I could be like Albert Einstein but sadly I am not dyslexic. Maybe Thomas Edison, again I have no chance since I am not dyslexic, even though there is only conjecture that they could have been dyslexic. Finally we find out that there is an unexpected (by whom?) ability to read upside down or in a mirror which "(as my son and Leonardo da Vinci are known to have done)" So Ms. Wolfs son is an intellectual and creative elite who could easily be compared to Leonardo da Vinci. Without this book I would not have known my non-dyslexic inferiority to her son. By the way I can read upside down and in a mirror, and I believe a great many people can do this. I must say I have nothing against her son who has such condescending parents who are "long accustomed to being surprised by Ben;" Of course they have him believing that the best predictor to dyslexia is creativity and success. Ms Wolf writes on page 197 "as a researcher I'm not altogether comfortable writing about my hunches." But here is an entire book filled with hunches of evolutionary supposition, post mortem diagnoses of dyslexia, and assumptions of creative superiority within people who have dyslexia (which is linked to the impoverished who suffer from dyslexia disproportionally). A disappointing book, unless you want to feel good about being dyslexic or having to deal with dyslexia without scientific support.