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Book Review: "Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain" by Maryanne Wolf

          The book Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain by Maryanne Wolf journeys into the brain in hopes of sheading light on the history of reading, what we as a society gain through our abilities to read, and what causes some people to be unable to read. I have a special connection to this book. As a child I had dyslexia and as a result had to work with tutors for many years to retrain or rewire my brain so it would be able to read. Therefore, I found multiple sections of this book to be enlightening, relatable, and helpful in understanding how my brain and other brains with learning disabilities function and why they are they way they are. However, not all of the Proust and the Squid gave me such excitement. Multiple times throughout the text I felt Wolf discredits oral culture in an attempt to elevate the act of reading and made pessimistic claims about how technology will negatively affect and change our brains without proper evidence and while not acknowledging how this notion contradicts her glorification of the invention of reading.

            When I read in the preface that Wolf was a teacher of cognitive neuroscience as a humanities major I was frightened. I worried that the language of her book would cause her arguments and information to be inaccessible, however I was pleasantly surprised. She explains brain processes, functions, and the anatomy of the brain in a way that allowed one to easily follow her train of thought.  She employs analogies and diagrams, as well as presented sentences to the reader where she asks them to observe how their own brain functioned. This interactive aspect of her book helps one visually picture the parts of the brain and brain functions she describes. One particularly helpful diagram, labeled “A Time Line of Reading” (Wolf Fig. 6-3), is a “linear conceptualization” of reading that lays out which brain process come after another when reading a word (Wolf 145).

            Another positive aspect of her book is the time she takes to explain learning disabilities, specifically dyslexia, to her readers. There are many problematic ideas in society surrounding learning disabilities and she debunks many of them in her two chapters focused on dyslexia. She makes the point throughout her book that humans are not born being to read and that there is no “reading gene” therefore there is great challenge in understanding why some brains are not able to pick up the skill of reading as easily as others. She explores in chapter 7 “Dyslexia’s Puzzle and the Brain’s Design” and in chapter 8 “Genes, Gifts, and Dyslexia” different possible causes of dyslexia, such as problems with the processes connected to phonology and the ability to learn multiple languages.  She does not favor one reason over another but instead claims, “learning to read can go wrong for any number of reasons” (Wolf 193). I appreciated her acknowledgement of the array of reasons why one can have dyslexia because it helps dispel the notion that dyslexia is the same for everyone and it should therefore be treated similarly with every person. She also pushes back against the idea that people with “dyslexia” are dumb but instead helps explain how their brains are wired differently and developed in a different way. She lists multiple successful people, such as Charles Schwab and Leonardo De Vinci, who were very successful and intelligent despite struggling with dyslexia. She goes on to list many other famous names of people who have or had dyslexia. This at one point became a little redundant and obnoxious because obviously not everyone with dyslexia is an insanely talented Italian artist. Though, I thought, for anybody, especially a kid, who feels stupid or dejected because of their struggles with learning to read, hearing about people that were able to succeed in amazing ways, would be inspiring.

            Though at times I found her book to be enlightening, I also found it to make exaggerations about technology’s and reading’s impact on our brains. Multiple times throughout the text she questions whether the “next generations capacity to find insights, pleasure, pain, and wisdom in oral to written language be dramatically altered” by technology or whether the current generation’s increased screen time will change the way the brain reads (Wolf 214). I found these claims to be dramatic. She states multiple times that reading on a screen is different than reading from a page and will therefore change our reading brain processes. However, she never really presents concrete scientific evidence to support this concern. Also, at the same time that she criticizes current technological advancement for hurting our brain functions (and uses Socrates fears of the written word to bluster her argument) she celebrates the invention of reading and the positive ways it has impacted human development. I found this to be very contradictory. In addition, I disliked the enormous value she placed on the ways the brain changed or “developed” because of reading because the structure of her argument diminishes oral culture. She states that “learning to read released the species from many of the former limitations of human memory” allowing our brain to expand and improve its critical thinking ability (Wolf 216). I found this to be an offensive notion that ignored the special skills a brain develops in an oral culture, which maybe different but not better than those developed in written culture. As well, her argument problematically implies that those who do not know how to read or do not read often do not have as sophisticated brains as avid readers.

 

            I found her history on the development of reading and its impact on our brains fascinating and informative, however, by the end of her book she appears to be Luddite, more focused on preserving old functions then considering the wondrous ways in which technology can help our species development and improve the lives of those with disabilities connected to the brain. 

 

Wolf, Maryanne, and Catherine J. Stoodley. Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

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