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Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

proust and the squid

Reading changes our lives, and our lives change our reading.

I am an English major through and through.  Science is interesting, but mostly over my head, and math–ha!  But the subject matter of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf, convinced me venture into the realm of science (at least, the kind of science an English major can understand and appreciate).

The book is divided into three distinct sections: “How the Brain Learned to Read,” “How the Brain Learns to Read Over Time,” and “When the Brain Can’t Learn to Read.”  The first section gives an overview of the history of language, writing, and reading and how the human brain had to evolve to accommodate such developments.  The most interesting and important thing I learned from this section of the book is that our brains are not hard-wired to read; over time we have sculpted our brains into “reading brains.”  The second section focuses on the process children go through to learn to read.  In essence, Wolf explains how the childhood brain undertakes the same challenge in about 2,000 days as the collective human brain accomplished in about 2,000 years.  Finally, the third section examines the brains of those with reading disabilities, specifically dyslexia.  Wolf is the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Boston, and this section of the book is where she brings in her team’s findings.

I strongly believe in the importance of reading in childhood, and therefore the importance of children’s literature.  There were a number of times in Proust and the Squid that Wolf confirmed this importance, and perhaps that is the reason I liked the book so much.  For example, she defends the merits of children’s books such as Harry Potter by explaining, “The worlds of Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts provide fertile ground for developing skills of metaphor, inference, and analogy, because nothing is ever as it seems in these places” (138).  Wolf also points out a study that found that “the average young middle-class child hears 32 million more spoken words than the young underprivileged chid by age five” (20) simply because the middle-class child is so much more likely to be frequently read aloud to.

I would recommend this book to anyone who believes in the importance of reading, especially in light of an increasingly digital world.

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Designed by Renato Stanisic.  Image from Goodreads.com.


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