Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brainby Maryanne Wolf
"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
"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.
Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University, integrates psychology and archeology, linguistics and education, history and neuroscience in a truly pathbreaking 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 ("[u]nlike 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 fewer words than their counterparts (with chilling long-term effects), and makes time for amusing and affecting anecdotes, such as the only child she knew to fake a reading disorder (in an attempt 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. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
In her first book aimed at a general readership, Wolf (director, Ctr. for Reading and Language Research, Tufts Univ.) examines reading's extraordinary evolution. Beginning with an exploration of how the human brain evolved and adapted itself to become able to read, she then offers a history of linguistic development that concludes with the progress of alphabet-based languages. Wolf's detailed description of how children learn to read examines this process from combined social, psychological, and neurological perspectives. She illustrates how specific books and activities provide fundamental catalysts for developing cognitive paths. Wolf then examines dyslexia, providing a short historical foundation and analyzing current research. Particularly interested in how to teach those with reading difficulties, she writes from a researcher's perspective and a parent's (her son is dyslexic). Throughout, Wolf's intriguing combination of linguistic history, sociology, psychology, and neuroscience is engaging and clear. The figures and illustrations as well as the wonderful literary quotes enrich her readable prose. For librarians, her text speaks to the changes the online information boom is bringing our world and provides a foundation for the importance of teaching information literacy. Recommended for academic and public libraries.
—Publishers Weekly [starred review]
“Brilliant. One of the best books I’ve encountered this year.”
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Read an Excerpt
Proust and the Squid
The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
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.
Learning involves the nurturing of nature.
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.
Meet the Author
Maryanne Wolf is a professor of child development at Tufts University, where she is also the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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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.
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.