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Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain Paperback – 6 Nov 2008
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'An inspiring celebration of the science of reading.' -- The Guardian, April 2008
'For people interested in language, this is a must. You'll find yourself focusing on words in new ways. Read it slowly - it will take time to sink in.' -- William Leith, Sunday Telegraph, March 2008
`Everything about her book, which combines a healthy dose of lucid neuroscience with a dash of sensitive personal narrative, delights ... a beautifully balanced piece of popular-science writing' -- Boyd Tonkin, The Independent, February 2008
`This is a paean of praise for, and a rewarding exploration of, the creative reciprocities between writing, reading and thinking, it is especially good on dyslexia.' -- The Times, November 2008
'An inspiring celebration of the science of reading.'See all Product description
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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.
All in all, I enjoyed the book. I have to agree with a lot of what Donald Mitchell says, especially as regards the writing style and the weakness of the 'Proust and the Squid' metaphor - it's nothing more than an attractive title to pique interest. I also found that the author liked to blow her own trumpet a little too much - naturally, she focuses on her own research and any other work that backs it up, but unlike true scientific spirit and philosophy would decree, she does not admit much to the great inaccuracy and inconsistency in the field. Her theory does not represent the consensus in the literature, although you'd be forgiven for thinking that was the case by the way she writes about her work! At times the book felt like a desperate attempt to impress the reader, either with her research, her family history, or her use of vocabulary.
The big focus on neuroscience and brain imaging is hardly unsurprising given her background, but neuroscientific findings are so limited on their own. There is good evidence for the Phonological Deficit Hypothesis as an explanation of dyslexia, which, as a cognitive-level theory, is not mentioned in the book.
The book did teach me about the development of writing systems (cuneiform, hieroglyphics, etc.) and about Socrates' contention with written language, representing "unguided and uncritical access to information". I'm not sure whether to view the internet debate as positive or negative - it certainly speared me on to further work on the subject (e.g. Untangling the Web, Aleks Krotoski), although on the other hand it did seem as though perhaps the book had enough on its plate as it was.
Above all, the book reinforced the message that "reading never just happens" - learning to read is a long and onerous process that relies on so many 'primitive' capacities. As a result, there is a lot of possibility for malfunctioning and cross-wiring, which have disasterous consequences in societies that place huge emphasis on decoding and extracting meaning from text.
The other big thing I got out of this, was that 'dyslexia' or reading weaknesses go much wider: the speed of processing & automaticity part of the discussion was, for me, fascinating because that describes what I've seen in my children, but never recognised as a 'condition'.
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