In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf, an expert on the reading brain, describes how our brains manage to read. Reading is not an innate activity, but it is an invention, and only a few thousand years old at that. It does not come naturally to humans in the way that walking or eating does and on the first page of this book, we learn that it is only because of the remarkable "plasticity" of our brains that we are able to achieve an understanding of the written word.
The book is divided into three parts. Firstly the history of how humans learned to read, secondly how reading is learned and how it develops, and thirdly what happens when in cases like dyslexia, something goes wrong in the "learning to read" process.
The reference to Proust in the title refers to passages from Proust's writings in which he describes the pleasure of reading, the memories that are evoked by thinking back to special books from childhood (how Proustian!), and the "reading sanctuary", that place of escape, a refuge from the world and its troubles. If Proust is a metaphor for a particular approach to reading, so the squid in the title refers to early neruo-scientific investigations of that creature which found how neurons fire and transmit to each other, adapting when things go wrong, repairing and compensating along the way. The squid analogy refers to the way reading required something new from existing structure of the brain, only possible because of the "plasticity" referred to earlier.
Wolf describes how reading actually changes us. We interact with books, both making them our own (everyone reads a text in their own way), but we are also permanently changed by them. "We bring our life experiences to the text, and the text changes our experience of life". Whenever we read, our original boundaries are challenged, teased and gradually placed somewhere new. An expanding sense of "other" changes who we are.
The section on the development of alphabets and reading systems is fascinating. Different types of brain activity are needed to read say Mandarin Chinese than are required for the Western alphabet. The style of writing shapes the culture to a degree, and certainly changes the reading experience. "Learning to read changes the visual cortex of the brain. The expert readers visual areas are now populated with cell networks responsible for visual images of letters, letter patterns and words". The eye moves ahead with a Western text, but moves leftward with a Hebrew text, gathering advance information about the text before it even reaches it.
The section on dyslexia was less interesting to me, but no doubt with be of great interest to educators and parents of dyslexic children. I am sure however that these chapters fit well into the book as a whole because they do actually illustrate what happens when for most of us, reading works flawlessly.
For those, like me, who are interested in "books about books", and the reading process Proust and the Squid would be an excellent addition to their library, a book to refer back to and to re-read. It is a little difficult to take in all the scientific material about brain processes, but there is much of immediate interest, the more complex neuro-science being available for study at a later time.