Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

This absorbing popular science book is about the “story of the reading brain in the context of our unfolding intellectual evolution”.

I enjoyed it  from beginning to end: it contains a lot of thought-provoking ideas on reading, language, the brain, dyslexia and modern communication technology.

The author, Maryanne Wolf,  explores the reading brain from two different angles:  the first is the personal/intellectual for which she uses Proust (the French novelist) as a metaphor while the second angle is the biological where she employs the squid as an analogy.

The book also acknowledges that we are currently in a transition phase from a “written culture to one that is increasingly driven by visual images and massive streams of digital information” (massive amounts of which are ignored, right?)  Wolf raises some tantalising questions about the implications of this cultural transition for the reading brain.

Proust and the Squid (The Story and Science of the Reading Brain) by Maryanne Wolf


While it is the biological-cognitive side of the reading brain rather than the cultural-historical side that Wolf turns most of her attention to, the chapters on the first writing systems and the invention of alphabets are fascinating.

But back to the biological: Wolf explains how reading changes the way the brain is connected. Circuits and wiring are rearranged; certain areas become specialised; new pathways become automatic over time and there is a clever linking up of all the perceptual, cognitive, linguistic and motor systems.

Wolf takes us through the steps involved in progressing from a novice reader to an expert one, capturing the child’s delight that accompanies “the cracking of the code”, i.e, of learning to read. (This is nicely acted out by the character Hanna in the somewhat flawed film The Reader.)

Wolf reminds us how once we have learned to read, we spend a good deal of time thereafter reading to learn!

Along the way, we learn to read strategically, that is, we learn to: question what we don’t understand; summarise content; identify key points; and clarify, predict and infer what happens next.  These are lifelong reading skills that we use to comprehend increasingly complex texts.  They are just as valid in learning to read in a foreign language as they are in learning to read in a mother tongue. ( I must remember to apply them more often, both personally and professionally.)

Finally, Wolf deals with dyslexia: “the brain’s inability to acquire reading and spelling”.

Although dyslexia manifests itself in different ways in different languages, if you are dyslexic in one language you will almost certainly be dyslexic in other languages.

To date, research on dyslexia has been somewhat “untidy”.  Wolf organises the various hypotheses on reading failure along the lines of the brain’s own design.  The fact that  there are various possible causes of reading failure means that appropriate intervention is more difficult and that the focus of  research needs to shift from finding a single cause to identifying the most common subtypes.

A point that Wolf keeps returning to is the question of why it is that the dyslexic brain seems linked in some people to extraordinary levels of creativity in their professions which often involve design, spatial skills and the recognition of patterns.  There is evidence to suggest that Leonardo da Vinci, Gaudi, Picasso, Thomas Edison and Einstein were dyslexic.

Some of the  abilities associated with the dyslexic brain (creativity, big-picture thinking, attention to detail) may well lend themselves to the requirements of the new modes of communication that are infiltrating our lives.

The book concludes with questions about the future of reading – a subject on which several other books could be written.  Actually, Proust and the Squid is a mere starting point for many of the fascinating topics it explores.  Thank you Ms Wolf for a very stimulating read.

(Footnote: Maryanne Wolf came to Mantua in September last year for the annual literature festival.  I didn’t buy tickets to her event in advance and so couldn’t get in to see her.  Hers was one of the few indoor events and seat numbers were strictly limited for safety reasons.)




About cityoflu

Secret Agent Lu likes travelling, reading, neuroses (all kinds), the Orient, cities, feet and science.
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