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Proust and the SquidReview - Proust and the Squid
The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
by Maryanne Wolf
Harper, 2007
Review by Tony O'Brien, RN, MPhil
Apr 8th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 15)

For most people, reading is a taken for granted skill. The purpose of Proust and the Squid is to reveal the magic and mystery of reading and its pathologies. This everyday activity is not natural, and is a recent development from an evolutionary perspective. There is no 'reading center' in the brain, but something a lot more enigmatic, an acquired way of using existing structures and connections. New imaging technology shows startling differences between dyslexics and others, differences that illuminate the journey to literacy as never before. It is only 6000 years since humans trained their brains to read, and during that time they have improved on the process to such a staggering degree that the modern child takes 2000 days to achieve a degree of literacy that took 2000 years to develop. The dark cloud on the horizon is another human invention of staggering genius: digitalization. This most economic of information systems was made possible by the very thing it now threatens: the ability to read.

Author Maryanne Wolf is a Professor of Child Development, with a special interest in reading and language development. From the introduction to the book it is apparent that Wolf's interests are both aesthetic and empirical; she is fascinated by language and driven to understand it scientifically. The title Proust and the Squid has little to do with the content, although Proust's enchantment with reading is regularly invoked. The squid just happens to be unfortunate enough to have neurons that are ideal for the study of nerve conduction, something for which it pays a heavy price. The subtitle The Story and Science of the Reading Brain is more informative, but the book is hardly likely to fly off the shelves with that title, and what's wrong with science enjoying a little poetic flutter? Proust was never shy about offering a poetic view of science.

There are three major components to Proust and the Squid. The first is a history of the acquisition of reading, the second is the neuroscience of reading, and the third is an extended discussion of the neurobiology and implications of dyslexia. In the background, like a nagging headache that won't go away, is a concern that the digital age may lead to the loss, or at least a wholesale reduction in levels of reading literacy. Wolf compares the current expansion of digitally encoded knowledge with the earlier development of the alphabet. Each development has proved profoundly democratizing. On the other hand each, according to those who worry about them, had or has the potential to replace important and hard won cognitive skills with mere mimesis. Socrates, who never wrote, worried about the implications of widespread literacy. Wolf worries about its replacement with hyperlinked databases and instant information. It's easy to understand the concern in each case, and it is by no means clear that if Socrates' concerns proved to be unfounded, so too will Wolf's.           

The early history of reading covers the period from the eighth millennium BCE to the Greeks. Markings on clay tokens used for tallying goods may have led to their more abstract use as units of meaning, creating links between different brain centers that to this day give us the skill to read efficiently. The cuneiform script of the Sumerians, and Egyptian hieroglyphs, were probably key developments, although they were demanding to read because of the sheer number of symbols. The Greek alphabet, perhaps with elements borrowed from Phoenician, simplified the demands on memory by substituting symbols for individual sounds. This was a dramatic change, and difficult to appreciate from the distance of 2000 years.

The early history of literacy makes for an enjoyable and stimulating read. After this intriguing introduction the shift to the neuroscience of reading is something of a jolt. Neuroscience is a little harder to write about in such an engaging way.  Words like "magnocellular system", "supramarginal gyrus", and  "lateral genticulate nucleus" just don't have the romance of ancient scribes cutting characters into stone, or of merchants scoring clay tablets to record their transactions. The story of the brain though, is equally compelling. Driven to read, the brain responds by forging pathways that speed up the process. Wolf draws on MRI research to trace these pathways, emphasizing the plasticity of the brain. One is tempted to talk of inventiveness, as visual and language centers link to form something altogether new.  

The final section of the book seems closest to Wolf's heart. In describing dyslexia she shows a real empathy for those who suffer from it, although she does not paint them as victims. Drawing on the previous section she describes the differences in lateralization of brain function between dyslexics and others. She points to the number of creative and inventive geniuses whose achievements are probably a result of relative overdevelopment of their right hemispheres. This situation is necessitated by an apparent constitutional inability to develop the brain circuitary necessary to read efficiently. The ability to visualize and to manipulate images not only compensates for difficulties in reading, it also leads to innovations that would likely not occur otherwise. This does of course, beg the question of whether dyslexia should be regarded as a disability, or simply a manifestation of difference that is disvalued because of the cultural valorization of reading. Wolf gives enough examples, including several from her own family, to make it clear that she does not romanticize dyslexia on the basis of the extraordinary talents of some dyslexics. She is after all, director of a reading and language research center, and is clearly passionate about the negative consequences of dyslexia. Not every dyslexic is an Einstein or an Edison; most achieve well below their potential, something that is both unnecessary and damaging.         

Proust and the Squid is aimed at the educated general reader, although even among this group the language of neuroscience may be unfamiliar. Wolf does her best to make this accessible, but there is simply no language to render terms like "occipito-temporal area" more friendly. Fortunately, an earlier, more romantic era, has left us with terms like "Broca" and "Wernicke" to identify specific regions while telling us something of the history of neurology and satisfying the bibliophile's love of words. Wolf's love of reading and her awe at the achievement of it is infectious. Her drive to translate this into socially valuable science and practice is a major theme of the latter part of the book. Wolf is a generous researcher and academic who never misses an opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of colleagues and fellow researchers. She brings the text alive with references to the children involved in her research programs.  

There are inevitably issues that could not be explored and that leave the reader wanting more. The jump from development of the Greek alphabet to the 21st century is tantalizing, albeit that Wolf's rationale for this is sound enough. I would like to have seen some discussion of the printing press, and the development of grammatical markers. And while Wolf asks many times about the implications of digital technology, this question itself deserves book length treatment. There are countries, too, or at least populations, that are leap-frogging over reading and writing to go straight to the digital age. The general decline of reading is another topic of interest, and it is not all due to the digital age.

This is a book that will appeal to a range of readers. General readers who are patient enough to deal with the complexities of neuroscience will be well rewarded, even if they don't find the reading of this material as pleasurable as the historical account. Wolf's reporting of research studies into reading difficulties and dyslexia is also rather technical in places, but there is much to be gleaned from this section of the book. For those with a more specialist interest in reading Proust and the Squid fills many gaps in the history, science, and pedagogy of reading.

© 2008 Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien RN, MPhil, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland, a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz

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