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

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

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Natalie Baker
Reviewed by Natalie Baker
Summary: A book about how and why we read, jam-packed with fascinating information from the developing of writing systems to the latest research on dyslexia. It suffers, however, from the author at times talking down to the reader, and from far too many references to Socrates
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: November 2008
Publisher: Icon Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1848310308

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It took me a while to get hold of this book. It arrived, I opened it, and my other half (who is not an avid reader) took it straight out of my hands. The next day, my parents arrived, and spent their weekend visiting me taking it in turns to read chapters. It dissects the magic of reading in a way that does not detract from the wonder of the achievement that is humans learning to read; it made me laugh, it made me sad, and, I have to admit, I threw it across the room more than once. It's a book that provokes, at least from me – and from those around me – strong reactions.

Here I should declare an interest: I learnt to read well before I started school and I've never really stopped, I took a course in psycholinguistics at university, and I'm not an entire novice about the processes of learning to read and some of the problems that result. While I found the sections on the early development of reading around the world – Sumerian, Egyptian, Linear B and others – and the effects upon cognition fascinating, particularly the differences between alphabetic writing systems (such as ours) and pictorial writing systems (such as Chinese) and the different processes the brain uses to decode them, towards the end of the first section I found myself getting irritated by the appearance of someone who dominates the book, and that is Socrates.

Socrates was not a fan of reading. He never wrote a word in his life – his words have been passed down to us by Plato, a student of his, who did write. Why then, does he feature so prevalently in a book about reading? Wolf's reading of Socrates' arguments as to the inferiority of the written word as opposed to oration is that he worried about the inflexibility of the written word, and the stagnation of language, which she likens to some people's worries about the internet's effects, where we have such a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips we never really learn anything. My reading of Socrates (and she did admit in passing, we have to assume that Plato's transcriptions of his speeches are accurate) is less flattering: I think he was an old stick-in-the-mud, and the more she made reference to his arguments against literacy and superficial knowledge, the more I groaned, and then the more I started to look at this as a lens through which I read the entire book.

I appreciate that this is meant to be a 'popular science' book, but in the sections about children having difficulties learning to read, I longed and longed for more detail. She covers an enormous amount of ground but at the expense of any deep discussion. Her little case studies about particular children helped by various reading interventions are sweet, but brief, and don't give us any particular insight into exactly how they were helped. She starts throwing researchers' and theorists' names around at quite a dizzying rate that, if I hadn't been familiar with well over half of them, I could quite see myself getting lost, and the book ends up being quite a dense read because of this. I'd have liked perhaps a little deeper treatment of some subjects rather than trying to cover so much ground in so few pages.

Where I really got incensed, however, was when she prefaced a section that described the complex myriad of near-instantaneous processes that go into reading – easily one of the most fascinating sections in the entire book – with the declaration that this was a 'technical' section that might not be for everyone, so those who wished to could skip ahead. I am not sure if she was trying to prove Socrates' complaint about the superficiality of the written word, or contradict his will to knowledge and the 'inquiring mind', but what I really objected to was being told, however superficially, that this might be too difficult for me to comprehend. I object to being told what I might or might not want to read.

Her section on dyslexia is extremely interesting, and of the different ways that a dyslexic brain approaches reading, and again, far too briefly, the differences of dyslexic problems in speakers of other languages. Her son is dyslexic, and while many researchers often have personal reasons for becoming experts in what they do, I felt a little uncomfortable with her spending a lot of time in this section talking about her son; it made me question her integrity as a researcher. I felt, rather than being convinced by her argument that dyslexics are somehow all geniuses because their brains are wired in a different way, and that many dyslexics have been famous and successful, I felt like she was looking for reasons to boast about her son being clever. I'm left-handed and to me, I'd heard a lot of her arguments equally applied to talk about left-handed people, I felt like I needed more information before I could be convinced.

Ultimately, this is a fascinating book, but it didn't leave me feeling like I'd actually gained any really deep knowledge about the subject. Even the poor squid is barely mentioned – to be fair, Proust gets mentioned a lot more. Perhaps I am just being over-reactive; I found the memories of the moments that people realised they could read completely compulsive, and more than a little personally saddening – I don't remember that moment. I don't remember ever being unable to read. But I think it's really that, long before the end of this book, I had become thoroughly sick of Socrates.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought is a highly-recommended look at how language changes the way we think, and David Crystal's How Language Works covers similar ground.

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