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

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The act of reading is a miracle. Every new reader's brain possesses the extraordinary capacity to rearrange itself beyond its original abilities in order to understand written symbols. But how does the brain learn to read? As world-renowned cognitive neuroscientist and scholar of reading Maryanne Wolf explains in this impassioned book, we taught our brain to read only a fe The act of reading is a miracle. Every new reader's brain possesses the extraordinary capacity to rearrange itself beyond its original abilities in order to understand written symbols. But how does the brain learn to read? As world-renowned cognitive neuroscientist and scholar of reading Maryanne Wolf explains in this impassioned book, we taught our brain to read only a few thousand years ago, and in the process changed the intellectual evolution of our species. Wolf tells us that the brain that examined tiny clay tablets in the cuneiform script of the Sumerians is configured differently from the brain that reads alphabets or of one literate in today's technology. There are critical implications to such an evolving brain. Just as writing reduced the need for memory, the proliferation of information and the particular requirements of digital culture may short-circuit some of written language's unique contributions—with potentially profound consequences for our future. Turning her attention to the development of the individual reading brain, Wolf draws on her expertise in dyslexia to investigate what happens when the brain finds it difficult to read. Interweaving her vast knowledge of neuroscience, psychology, literature, and linguistics, Wolf takes the reader from the brains of a pre-literate Homer to a literacy-ambivalent Plato, from an infant listening to Goodnight Moon to an expert reader of Proust, and finally to an often misunderstood child with dyslexia whose gifts may be as real as the challenges he or she faces. As we come to appreciate how the evolution and development of reading have changed the very arrangement of our brain and our intellectual life, we begin to realize with ever greater comprehension that we truly are what we read. Ambitious, provocative, and rich with examples, Proust and the Squid celebrates reading, one of the single most remarkable inventions in history. Once embarked on this magnificent story of the reading brain, you will never again take for granted your ability to absorb the written word.


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The act of reading is a miracle. Every new reader's brain possesses the extraordinary capacity to rearrange itself beyond its original abilities in order to understand written symbols. But how does the brain learn to read? As world-renowned cognitive neuroscientist and scholar of reading Maryanne Wolf explains in this impassioned book, we taught our brain to read only a fe The act of reading is a miracle. Every new reader's brain possesses the extraordinary capacity to rearrange itself beyond its original abilities in order to understand written symbols. But how does the brain learn to read? As world-renowned cognitive neuroscientist and scholar of reading Maryanne Wolf explains in this impassioned book, we taught our brain to read only a few thousand years ago, and in the process changed the intellectual evolution of our species. Wolf tells us that the brain that examined tiny clay tablets in the cuneiform script of the Sumerians is configured differently from the brain that reads alphabets or of one literate in today's technology. There are critical implications to such an evolving brain. Just as writing reduced the need for memory, the proliferation of information and the particular requirements of digital culture may short-circuit some of written language's unique contributions—with potentially profound consequences for our future. Turning her attention to the development of the individual reading brain, Wolf draws on her expertise in dyslexia to investigate what happens when the brain finds it difficult to read. Interweaving her vast knowledge of neuroscience, psychology, literature, and linguistics, Wolf takes the reader from the brains of a pre-literate Homer to a literacy-ambivalent Plato, from an infant listening to Goodnight Moon to an expert reader of Proust, and finally to an often misunderstood child with dyslexia whose gifts may be as real as the challenges he or she faces. As we come to appreciate how the evolution and development of reading have changed the very arrangement of our brain and our intellectual life, we begin to realize with ever greater comprehension that we truly are what we read. Ambitious, provocative, and rich with examples, Proust and the Squid celebrates reading, one of the single most remarkable inventions in history. Once embarked on this magnificent story of the reading brain, you will never again take for granted your ability to absorb the written word.

30 review for Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

  1. 4 out of 5

    Manuel Antão

    If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review. Bone-in Meat Without the Meat: "Proust and the Squid" by Maryanne Wolf “Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?"   In “Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf”     Why wouldn't Amazon publish the ebook I If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review. Bone-in Meat Without the Meat: "Proust and the Squid" by Maryanne Wolf “Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?"   In “Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf”     Why wouldn't Amazon publish the ebook I wrote in 1986 on a ZX81 and posted to them saved on a cassette tape? On the other hand, I once (1988, I think) did the work for a non-linear dynamics paper on my Sinclair Spectrum, and produced the diagrams using the Spectrum's printer, which used sparks to burn dots in the silver coating of the paper, then photographing and enlarging them. It was submitted to the very snooty college journal. They accepted it but wondered if I couldn't make better diagrams. They published anyway when I said I couldn't. How I wish I could recover this. It’s in one of the floppy disk in my attic at home…I’ve still got several programming nuggets I developed at the time. One of them was a chess compiler in C. If I had the hardware to read that kind of media (I’ve still got the floppy disks, but I no longer have the drive that went along with them…), I could recover most of them too if I really set my mind to it. But I wouldn't regard it as worth the effort, so they'll eventually get lost without anyone ever knowing whether they are worth saving. Only me…A lot of forensics software aims to keep old formats readable - so incompatibility is the least of our worries. Books last for hundreds, even thousands of years. Modern storage media do not. 'Bit rot' is going to become a serious problem...       If you're into Proust and Programming Languages, read on.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    This is a book I frequently return to, checking facts, and reminding myself what a wondrous thing reading actually is. Maryanne Wolf masters the difficult balance between an enjoyable book full of anecdotes and a sound scientific research on the processes of the brain while reading. I was fascinated by the several pages long description of what happens in my head while I read just ONE SENTENCE. After I had finished the description, I went back and reread the section (it took about 20 minutes), a This is a book I frequently return to, checking facts, and reminding myself what a wondrous thing reading actually is. Maryanne Wolf masters the difficult balance between an enjoyable book full of anecdotes and a sound scientific research on the processes of the brain while reading. I was fascinated by the several pages long description of what happens in my head while I read just ONE SENTENCE. After I had finished the description, I went back and reread the section (it took about 20 minutes), and again, could not quite visualise how my brain could do all that while I was just trying to make sense of the content. Woolf explains the difference between deeply concentrated reading and skimming through articles (online), and she gives a detailed account of dyslexia, from a very personal perspective. I finished the book with a satisfying feeling of knowing more and yet wanting to learn so much still. Very readable!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Carmen

    We may never fly in a hot-air balloon, win a race with a hare, or dance with a prince until the stroke of midnight, but through stories in books we can learn what it feels like. In this process we step outside ourselves for ever-lengthening moments and begin to understand the "other," which Marcel Proust wrote lies at the heart of communication through written language. OK. Well. *sips coffee* Let's have at it. First off, I want to say that this book really has fuck-all to do with Proust, or squid We may never fly in a hot-air balloon, win a race with a hare, or dance with a prince until the stroke of midnight, but through stories in books we can learn what it feels like. In this process we step outside ourselves for ever-lengthening moments and begin to understand the "other," which Marcel Proust wrote lies at the heart of communication through written language. OK. Well. *sips coffee* Let's have at it. First off, I want to say that this book really has fuck-all to do with Proust, or squids. She should have named it "Socrates and Dyslexia" or "The History and Future of Reading" or something. Second of all, Wolf admits this is her first non-academic work and her first attempt to write for the public. It shows. This is like a textbook, and it's hard to choke down. I could quote you a passage to illustrate this, but trust me - you wouldn't enjoy it and neither would I so I think we can just skip this part. This is probably the biggest problem of the book. Mentally you've just got to put your armor on and plow through. Whether you even want to bother is your own choice. WHAT THE BOOK IS ACTUALLY ABOUT Wolf is covering three main ideas here. 1.) Reading is not innate in humans. Your brain is not wired to read. That is why each child must learn to read and it requires help. Unlike its component parts such as vision and speech, which ARE genetically organized, reading has no direct genetic program passing it on to future generations. Thus the next four layers involved must learn how to form the necessary pathways anew every time reading is acquired by an individual brain. This is part of what makes reading - and any cultural invention - different from other processes, and why it does not come as naturally to our children as vision or spoken language, which are preprogrammed. 11 She goes into A LOT of scientific detail with this one. A LOT. 2.) Just like Socrates was irate and fearful by the advent of reading, people nowadays are terrified and curmudgeonly about what digital sources of information are 'doing to the children' and 'affecting children's minds' etc. etc. Both thought future generations were doomed. Wolf points out that actually, Socrates was wrong about reading. It didn't destroy people's brains and their ability to learn. It didn't mean the end of thinking and intelligent discourse. Even though she knows this, she is very leery of children living and learning in such a digital age. She fears it will damage their brains and perhaps mean that they will not be able to learn as deeply or thoroughly. Pretty much the same fears Socrates had about reading. Most of this is, honestly, gatekeeping. Even though Wolf doesn't describe it that way, that's what it is. This is particularly so because there has also never been a time when the complex beauty of the reading process stood more revealed, when the magnitude of its contributions was more clearly understood by science, or when these contributions seemed more in danger of being replaced by new forms of communication. Examining what we have and reflecting on what we want to preserve are the leitmotifs of these pages. Look at this: Underneath his ever-present humor and seasoned irony lies a profound fear that literacy without guidance of a teacher or of a society permits dangerous access to knowledge. Reading presented Socrates with a new version of Pandora's box: once written language was released there could be no accounting for what would be written, who would read it, or how readers might interpret it. 77 This is some classic, Catholic Church gatekeeping type shit. Don't learn how to read! Don't read the Bible! We, the learned, will read it FOR you and INTERPRET it for you because your uneducated brains can't handle pure knowledge. You'd probably interpret it THE WRONG WAY. Don't strain yourself! We'll do all the work. :) Leave it in our capable hands. Knowledge in the 'wrong hands' is dangerous stuff! It's a good idea to only let your elders and your leaders know stuff, so that you don't fuck it up! It's for your own good. What a crock of shit, both on the part of Catholicism and Socrates. And now Wolf is of the same mindset. She frets incessantly (I make it sound like she breaks from her boring-textbook writing- she does not) about how little children might become brain-weak and dumb from consuming digital information 'instantly' instead of having to 'digest' it through reading. Danger! I also have no idea what she is actually talking about. What kind of digital media does she think children are consuming? As far as I know, it is still impossible to download data directly into your brain. Is it YouTube? Twitter? Wikipedia? What has her so worried and upset? It's never explained. She keeps talking as if one can get 'instant data transfer' from the internet, but as far as I know, that's not possible. I'm very confused as to what she is specifically worried about. But even she admits it is quixotic to think you can staunch the gush of digital advancement. There's only so much gatekeeping you can do successfully. Reading became prominent and world-wide, there was no way to stop it. Just like you can't put computers back. They exist now. The internet exists now. Thinking you can raise your child without Internet or computers to age 18 is... technically possible, I guess, but if you live in a first-world country it might be more than a challenge. I guess you could home school them AND also live in a rural area AND also forbid them from ever leaving the house. And not own a TV. Or any cell phones. Or having any friends. Fluent, silent comprehension in the later phases of reading development would have symbolized for Socrates the most dangerous moment in literacy, because it makes the reader autonomous. It gives each new reader time to make predictions, to form new thoughts, to go beyond the text, and to become an independent learner. 224 See? Keep people ignorant, it really is for the best. /s ANYWAY. Equally courageous, Socrates feared above all else that the "semblance of truth,"conveyed by the seeming permanence of this written language, would lead to the end of the search for true knowledge, and that this loss would mean the death of human virtue as we know it. Socrates never knew the secret at the heart of reading: the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before. 229 3.) Dyslexia Now, when we realize on page 21 that her firstborn son has dyslexia, it all suddenly becomes clear to us. This book is a bit like Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking or that book I read that said that autism was the next stage of human evolution. When people belong to a group that is maligned or not valued, it is only natural human instinct to try and insist that this group is powerful and special. It's not bad, but Wolf spends a lot of time - like Cain does in Quiet - talking about how amazing dyslexics are and how full of untapped potential they are and how creative they are. She also talks about how hurtful and permanently damaging it is to make a child feel like he's stupid or worthless because he struggles with reading. All of these are valid points, but you know. A little saccharine. Cain, I think paints introverts as magical fairies more than Wolf paints dyslexics as powerful artists - but that's mainly due to writing style. Wolf can't break out of her dry, textbook speak to attempt to do what Cain was doing. The most important thing I think Wolf covers is how important it is to diagnose dyslexia early, help children to learn to read even if they may have some sort of learning challenge, and build a kid up instead of making him feel like shit. These are important, good ideas. She also helpfully points out that all forms of dyslexia are NOT the same and not set at the same degree. As for her insinuations that people with dyslexia are geniuses, poised for great things - I mean, it varies. Some people with dyslexia are great artists and company CEOS (being a CEO is always held up as some great marker of being amazing. I don't agree, but it seems a go-to for many people). But some people with dyslexia are average. Some introverts are amazing, revolutionary people or world leaders. But some are average. Some people with autism do amazing, wonderful things that change the world. But some live out lives that don't end up with them being rich, famous, or widely lauded geniuses. Just like any population or sub-population. I understand it is super-important to her because of her son, though. I understand her urge to see powerful people as dyslexic, search for evidence of dyslexia in every single famous person she comes across, and her obsession with how smart, talented, wonderful, and brilliant people with dyslexia are. I completely understand. But like in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, I'm just like "... ... ...." These books are very important for helping people develop self-esteem. Parents of children with autism and dyslexia may need reminders that even though the world is hard for and punishes people with autism and dyslexia, there is hope and goodness and wonder. I never saw introverts as a persecuted group, honestly, but Cain told me that they are and how they should be JUST as respected and lauded as extroverts. Which I have no argument for, it's just that reading books like this are a bit... like reading someone patting themselves on the back for twelve hours. Not very interesting. You probably will get the most out of this book as a parent of someone with dyslexia, because that is the angle Wolf is writing from and probably who will relate to her the most. She talks about teaching children with dyslexia to read: the challenges, the tips, the sweetness of success. However, if you do not have dyslexia or do not have a child with dyslexia or are not a reading teacher, you might not be as glued to the pages. Just a warning. It's only about 1/3 of the book that focuses on dyslexia, though. What is it about the dyslexic brain that seems linked in some people to unparalleled creativity in their professions, which often involve design, spatial skills, and the recognition of patterns? Was the differently organized brain of a person with dyslexia better suited for the demands of the preliterate past, with its emphasis on building and exploring? Will individuals with dyslexia be even better suited to the visual, technology-dominated future? Is the most current imaging and genetic research giving us the outlines of a very unusual brain organization in some persons with dyslexia that may ultimately explain both their known weaknesses and our steadily growing understanding of their strengths? 22 See, this is almost exactly like the book I read that claimed people with autism were the next stage in human evolution, and that eventually all humans would be autistic, because autism equips people to live better in the future we are creating. It's a strange viewpoint. Things ARE changing. For instance, they are talking about re-working IQ tests because they think the scores may not be valid anymore, due to the changing nature of learning and processing information. https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/13/health... TL;DR This book was not what I expected. For one thing, Wolf does not have an easy or accessible style. This reads like a scientific journal. That may appeal to you. If you are a person who claims most non-fiction is 'dumbed-down,' you will love this. For the rest of us, I would rather read Mary Roach. Wolf is neither entertaining nor easy to chew. She has some valuable information in here, and she makes some great points. Unfortunately, I think most readers will put the book down rather than choose to plow through the verbiage. When Wolf covers the history and development of reading, it's debatable how much interest you will have in this. She does educate you and tell you things you didn't know before. She does a bit of jerking-off about how great, amazing, wonderful, transportative, and life-changing reading is. And, okay, that's true, but I don't want to read about it. Luckily for me, she doesn't focus on this for eight hours. It's relatively mild. This isn't The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry - thank heaven, I thought those books were utter crap. Then Wolf tackles how the digital age and advancement of technology might destroy our brains and intelligence. She's self-aware enough to know that this is futile - no one can stop the digital age. But still, she is distressed about The Children. She never specifies exactly what technologies she is so petrified of, though. Perhaps she will expound on it in her book that comes out this Tuesday: Reader, Come Home: The Fate of the Reading Brain in a Digital World. I bet she has a lot to say. I think it was great and interesting how she compared modern-day terror of digital learning to Socrates' terror of reading and the written word. Lastly, she addresses dyslexia. This section probably would be of the most worth to people with dyslexia, people who are parents to children with dyslexia, and people who teach reading. She also does a little shine-job on dyslexia and it's possible marker for genius and artistry. I took this with a grain of salt. Certainly my children's eighty-six-year-old Jewish grandmother, Lotte Noam, would flummox future generations. On almost any occasion she can supply an appropriate three-stanza poem from Rilke, a passage from Goethe, or a bawdy limerick - to the infinite delight of her grandsons. Once, in a burst of envy, I asked Lotte how she could ever memorize so many poems and jokes. She answered simply, "I always wanted to have something no one could take away if I was ever put into a concentration camp." 76

  4. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    There are many things in life that need to be explained. One of those things is why is it that some people learn to read as if reading was like breathing or like fish taking to water, while others can struggle for decades and still only read haltingly and even then never quite ‘get’ what it is they are reading? I know that looks like two things – actually, a moment’s reflection might make you think that what needs to be explained isn’t one or two things, but rather many, many more. Perhaps as ma There are many things in life that need to be explained. One of those things is why is it that some people learn to read as if reading was like breathing or like fish taking to water, while others can struggle for decades and still only read haltingly and even then never quite ‘get’ what it is they are reading? I know that looks like two things – actually, a moment’s reflection might make you think that what needs to be explained isn’t one or two things, but rather many, many more. Perhaps as many things need explaining as there are ways of becoming a good or poor reader and perhaps that is as many ways as there are people who do read. This book takes it as a given that people are made by their genes and that their brains are too – and since reading is ultimately a way of using our brains, that this might mean that some of the ways in which reading can be made hard may well be genetic. I have a lot of things to confess. Firstly, I don’t particularly like genetic explanations for complex social phenomena such as reading. Secondly, very many people in my immediate family struggle to read fluently. I count myself in that too, as I have never liked reading in public and will do an awful lot to avoid having to do it. Having had kids and knowing the benefits that their being read to would bring them made me read to them over the years – and that practice (and I suspect my interest in audio books) has made me better at reading aloud, but I would never be the first person in a room to offer to read the newspaper quiz, for example. When I learnt to read, when I struggled to learn to read, I was definitely old enough to remember the experience – this was also true of my father, oddly enough, and my brother – but I consciously decided in my early teens that it was essential that I learn. I borrowed books from the library and I plodded (achingly slowly) through them. Prior to this I spent a lot of time in remedial literacy classes – classes the distorting lens of memory has located in a windowless room in one of my primary schools, a room with a decidedly Dickensian atmosphere and perhaps that is the reason I never read Dickens. Though truth be told, I’ve only thought of that excuse now, and will probably stick with ‘I don’t read him because he’s an opinionated old fart’ as my reason of choice. So, if there is a stuffed gene that hinders the brain in learning to read, I can only assume my family has double copies of it in both bold and italic - although as genes I guess that should be in denim and corduroy. That said, there were other reasons for my hindered progress in learning to read. I was born with a rather impressive astigmatism which made whatever was written on the blackboard until this impairment was appropriately diagnosed and suitable glasses prescribed a world of smudges – I’ve never been as impressed with Impressionism as everyone else tends to be, Monet is merely how the world looks without my glasses on. And then there was the fact that I had arrived in Australia at five to a country unfamiliar with Belfast accents making communication with those around me almost impossible for the first few years. And this not being helped by my attending 7 different primary schools. All of these steps ought to have ensured I never learnt to read – but given the luck of a good and caring English teacher, and somehow being possessed of inexplicable desire to learn to read helped along by a healthy dose of Irish bloody-mindedness I ended up learning all the same. To me, learning to read has always seemed a happy accident, a matter of one kind of fate getting in the way of what looked like a much more certain destiny and, by dint of a fluke, I am here. This book says there is little natural about learning to read – something I’ve always known to be true for sure. Reading has been around for far too short a time and available to far too few of us for us to have developed specialist genes to help with the task. Instead, we learn to read by putting brain structures (and therefore ultimately genes) to work that came into existence for quite different purposes. Reading requires multiple parts of the brain to work in tandem: sight, language centres, vocal areas, meaning centres – in fact, not just in tandem, but in sequence. Timing is everything with reading. And some brains are literally structured differently – things go wrong, the timing is out or the pathways that ‘work’ so well for some people can’t be used for others and this causes delays in processing and difficulties or rather near impossibilities for certain would be readers. And like so much else in learning – those who can read find it impossible to have sympathy with those who cannot, and so those who can all too often assume those who can’t are being wilful or lazy or just plain stupid. I read this book because Oliver Sacks recommended it in his The Mind’s Eye. In that book he makes it all too clear that our normal assumptions (that everyone has pretty much the same brain as ourselves) are completely off the mark. I more or less skimmed over a lot of this book, though. I’m never going to know how important dysfunctions in the supramarginal gyrus are when compared with those of the angular gyrus or even those in Wernicke’s area – but it is nice to know people are looking into these things in their white lab coats and with their serious looking expressions on their faces. It is also good to know that we still have only such a superficial understanding of all of this, so much so that, like dropping a stone into an abyss, the main thing illuminated for me by all of this talk of brain areas was the depth of our ignorance. For a long time I have thought that kids are much better off being taught to read using ‘whole language’ and therefore learning to read ‘from meaning’ rather than ‘phonics’. I still think there is a lot in this, in the end we all must learn to read by whole language, meaning is the only point of reading, after all – but this book has convinced me of the importance of giving kids phonetic skills along the way. My problem previously could be summed up by this wonderful paragraph from the book – a paragraph that asks by example how we should teach the pronunciation of the letter combination ‘ea’? “There once was a beautiful bear who sat on a seat near to breaking and read by the hearth about how the earth was created. She smiled beatifically, full of ideas for the realm of her winter dreams.” We like to think that English can be learnt by starting with cat, bat, mat, fat, rat and working up from there – but create, beat, idea and read look like they were designed to make learning to read impossible for any sensible child - what possible hypothesis could they use to understand that sequence? And that is the problem, or at least, part of the problem – English is not really phonetic, (something she says helps make English harder to learn than other languages and means particular kinds of dyslexia are more likely to be common in English) but it does use the alphabetic principle, and so I can see that it makes some sense to teach this to kids – if for no other reason than as a crutch until they get the idea that reading is about getting meaning from text and also to help them learn more to write, than to read. I think her various stages in learning to read are well worth understanding – particularly since what is being taught are patterns towards fluent reading. The other interesting part of this book was around dyslexia – I’ve often worried that dyslexia really just means ‘not being able to read’. Other books I’ve read have referred to it as a ‘minimal brain dysfunction’ – that is, if you can’t read then something must be going wrong with your brain, but since the brains that are dysfunctioning look exactly the same as the brains that aren’t – that something must be very, very small, hence, minimal brain dysfunction – although we can’t find what's wrong, we know it must be there. But this book claims some predictable differences in such things as patterns in brain lateralisation, right-hemisphere preferences and timing problems involved in parts of the brain lighting up while attempting to read have been associated with an inability to learn to read. As clear as her writing is, I have no idea if this is proof of brain problems associated with people not being able to read or not, to be honest. Nevertheless, she takes it as given that people with dyslexia tend to be more creative than people without dyslexia and even that they are much more likely to be artists and scientists and visionaries. Her son is one such person and she includes a drawing of his in this book - if I do have a form of dyslexia, it clearly isn't that form. But learning to read is still important. And why? Well, because reading literally changes the way we think, the way our brains operate. It allows us to develop conceptual and syllogistic modes of thought that are virtually impossible to achieve in any other way. She spends a lot of time discussing Socrates and his objections to literacy – but she does not mention that it is highly unlikely that he would have been able to think in the way that he did in a pre-literate society. We have proof of this – there are still many pre-literate societies extant and research has been conducted into their cognitive abilities. See Luria’s work as an example Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations. This is quite a short book, but it does give an interesting overview of the history of literacy over the last few thousand years and of the all too many impediments that can stand in the way of children becoming literate. All the same very many of the barriers that stand in the way of achieving literacy are social rather than biological. We choose to underfund education and we choose to create under-classes. But there are consequences and costs to these choices – as the riots in England this week have shown all too clearly.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Will Byrnes

    I found the beginning of the book fascinating, offering new (to me) information about the beginning of written language, how it takes different forms depending on whether it is picture-like or not, noting differences between languages that were representative of sounds or of things. Fascinating stuff. It was news to me that Socrates railed against the spread of written language, believing that spreading a way for many people to gain knowledge would have a net negative effect on the ability of pe I found the beginning of the book fascinating, offering new (to me) information about the beginning of written language, how it takes different forms depending on whether it is picture-like or not, noting differences between languages that were representative of sounds or of things. Fascinating stuff. It was news to me that Socrates railed against the spread of written language, believing that spreading a way for many people to gain knowledge would have a net negative effect on the ability of people to think and communicate. In a society in which knowledge was transmitted orally, strength of memory was paramount, and control of information thus very limited to the few who were both able and wealthy enough to spare the many years it took to memorize the knowledge of the realm. But I found most of the book a bit too technical for me, even though it was written for a general audience. I expect it will be most valued by college and grad students of linguistics and brain sciences and by professionals who deal with reading disorders. Much of the latter sections of the book address specifics on what reading problems constitute dyslexia, how reading constraints originate in different brain parts depending on the sort of language one is attempting to master, and whether what we see as a negative might not actually be in some ways a positive. Wolf notes that many of the greatest minds in human history would have been diagnosed as dyslexic today. But the heavy reliance on the right brain that characterizes dyslexics manifests in increased creativity. How much is cause and how much is effect is unclear, but it is noteworthy that a problem with reading does not indicate anything about intelligence. QUOTES P 65 Try to imagine a situation in which the educated members of an oral culture had to depend entirely on personal memorization and meta-cognitive strategies to preserve their collective knowledge. Such strategies, however impressive, came with a cost. Sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly, dependence on rhythm, memory, formulas, and strategy constrained what could be said, remembered, and created. The alphabet and other writing systems did away with most of those constraints, thereby enlarging the boundaries of what could be thought and written by more people. But is this a unique contribution of the Greek alphabet, or is it the very act of writing that promotes new levels of thought for more people? If we look back almost a 1,000 years before the Greeks to the Ugaritic writing system. We can observe a good example of what an y alphabet-like system can do within a culture. If we look bask still earlier to Akkadian literature…we see an outpouring of thought…recorded by a nonalphabetic logosyllabary. By taking a meta-view of this entire history, we can see that what promotes the development of intellectual thought in human history is not the first alphabet or even the best iteration of an alphabet but writing itself. As the twentieth-century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky said, the act of putting spoken words and unspoken thoughts into written words releases and, in the process changes the thoughts themselves. As humans learned to use written language more and more precisely to convey their thoughts, their capacity for abstract thought and novel ideas accelerated. P 74 The unbridgeable differences that Socrates saw between spoken and written words in their different pedagogical and philosophical uses, in their ability to depict reality, and in their capacity to refine thought and virtue were mild in comparison with his concern for the changes literacy would bring to memory, and the individual’s internalization of knowledge. Socrates well knew that literacy could greatly increase cultural memory, but he didn’t want the consequences of the trade. By committing to memory and examining huge amounts of orally transmitted material, young educated Greek citizens both preserved the extant cultural memory of their society and increased personal and societal knowledge. Unlike the judges at his trial, Socrates held this entire system in esteem not so much from a concern for preserving tradition as from the belief that only the arduous process of memorization was sufficiently rigorous to form the basis of a personal knowledge that could then be refined in dialogue with a teacher. From this larger interconnected view of language, memory, and knowledge, Socrates concluded that written language was not a “recipe” for memory, but a potential agent of its destruction. Preserving the individual’s memory and its role in the examination and embodiment of knowledge was more important than the indisputable advantages of writing in preserving cultural memory. P 158 Reading changes our lives, and our lives change our reading. P 213 I differ with Kurzweil’s implicit assumption that an exponential acceleration of thought processes is altogether positive. In music, in poetry, and in life, the rest, the pause, the slow movements are essential to comprehending the whole. Indeed, in our brain there are “delay neurons” whose sole function is to slow neuronal transmission by other neurons for mere milliseconds. These are the inestimable milliseconds that allow sequence and order in our apprehension of reality, and that enable us to plan ans synchronize soccer moves and symphonic movements. P 217 The new circuits and pathways that the brain fashions in order to read become the foundation for being able to think in different, innovative ways. The reading revolution, therefore, was both neuronally and culturally based, and it began with the emergence of the first comprehensive writing systems, not the first alphabet. The increased efficiency of writing and the memory it freed contributed to new forms of thought, and so did the neuronal systems set up to read. New thought came more readily to a brain that had already learned how to rearrange itself to read; the increasingly sophisticated intellectual skills promoted by reading and writing added to our intellectual repertoire, and continue to add to it. P 220 …Socrates worries were not so much about literacy as about what might happen to knowledge if the young had unguided, uncritical access to information. For Socrates, the search for real knowledge did not revolve around information. Rather, it was about finding the essence and purpose of life. Such a search required a lifelong commitment to developing the deepest critical and analytical skills, and to internalizing personal knowledge through the prodigious use of memory, and long effort. Only these conditions assured Socrates that a student was capable of moving from exploring knowledge in dialogue with a teacher to a path of principles that lead to action, virtue, and ultimately to a “friendship with his god.” Socrates saw knowledge as a force for the higher good; anything—such as literacy—that might endanger it was anathema. P 221 Ultimately, the questions Socrates raised for Athenian youth apply equally to our own. Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another’s inner thought processes, and of our own unconsciousness?

  6. 4 out of 5

    Victor Sonkin

    This book had been written quite a while ago; I probably heard about it because it was recently translated into Russian. While it's generally an account of a very interesting topic, it is not extremely engaging, either in its first part, where the history and neurobiology of reading are discussed, or in the second, when the author switches to the problems of a dyslexic brain (which is personal: one of her children is dyslexic; there is probably a family history, though what she relates is more l This book had been written quite a while ago; I probably heard about it because it was recently translated into Russian. While it's generally an account of a very interesting topic, it is not extremely engaging, either in its first part, where the history and neurobiology of reading are discussed, or in the second, when the author switches to the problems of a dyslexic brain (which is personal: one of her children is dyslexic; there is probably a family history, though what she relates is more like a family legend). There are some glaring mistakes in the text, such as calling Korney Chukovsky a 'scholar' or mentioning, in passing, 'Indo-European languages from Etruscan to Turkish.' This said, the book made me think about certain things which, I am absolutely sure, have been discussed a lot, but for me they, somewhat tangentially to the subject of the book, were a relative novelty. One of them is the presence of audiobooks, their popularity, and the reliance of many people to them; another, recently expressed by Anatoly Vorobey, is the popularity of all things audio-visual, like podcasts, which quite often (more often than not) can be compressed into text without any loss of information. I simply cannot use that. I know that many people are listening to audiobooks with increased speed; for me, that kind of defeats the purpose: if a book is read well, the actor must have been really trying; listening to the results of her or his work at a different speed completely ruins the efforts. Moreover, how much can you speed up a spoken text? Twice? (I'm not even sure that twice wouldn't be too much.) Reading is infinitely faster anyway. So why? Why are people spending much more time for getting the same information? (I would also argue that the uptake of content is much worse, quality-wise; but stay tuned.) Faced with the very simple and very obvious idea that reading is an extremely recent novelty in our life, which has no basis whatsoever in our brain structure, the answer seems obvious: because most people have not actually learned to read. Whenever they are given a chance to switch back to previous modes of communication, which are biologically native to us (like speaking and listening; while the brain is still essentially the black box, it is obvious that language is innate, that our species was endowed with the ability to use this tool, like walking upright), they do so, ditching the reading ability and coming back to it only when it is absolutely necessary. After all, we have all seen the situation with the 'most reading country in the world' once new mass media became available. I would argue that the number of 'readers' does not equal the number of 'non-dyslexic individuals,' which seems to be something like 80–90%; I would argue that in percentage points, there are approximately as many readers now as in the Middle Ages, with the obvious qualification that today's readers can include those who had never been able to become one for social or even biological (being a woman; there were nunneries, though) reasons. Which brings me to another point: how versatile is the brain? What other tools does it have under its hood we are not (yet) acquainted with? There are many specialized tasks which have always been like that, perhaps even during the prehistoric times, which is basically the bulk of our species's existence; we can basically neglect the last 5,000 years or so (the 'reading time'), because biologically it is nothing. (An aside: if we take a Homo sapiens baby born 80,000 years ago, would his or her reading abilities be absolutely the same, given s/he is not dyslexic? Or would the percentage of dyslexic individuals be substantially greater back then?) For example, music is one such skill; there are various degrees of musical education, but I think that it's a minority skill in any culture (if we take into account the necessity to learn a separate notation system etc.). Or typing. But then, if we take driving, for example, there are cultures (like much of the US) where this skill is absolutely universal. And yet, there is nothing in the brain that prepares us for it. It is like reading. Or using a smartphone: note the finger movements of old people using smartphones; they are not as natural as those of young people who kind of grew up with them or at least accepted them fully. There will be probably more of that as we grow older and see younger generations develop brain functions that we lack. All in all, it is a fascinating subject. We in Russia tend to forget how unusual the skill of reading is because the post-1917 literacy campaign was mass-scale and very successful. At the beginning of this century, I was interviewing some old villagers from Bosnia, who were born before Tito's time, and was surprised to find out that they were virtually illiterate. This ability is very new and somewhat fragile; and the development of today's mass media (starting from the early 20th century) has reversed the trend: people no longer need to read. We will probably see more of that in the future.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    As you might have noticed if you follow my reviews, I read a fair bit. It was therefore fascinating to get an insight into what my brain does as it devours books. ‘Proust and the Squid’ provides an impressively clear explanation of neuroscientific research on this front, as well as a brief history of reading. Wolf discusses recent findings enthusiastically, while showing how much is still unknown and/or disputed. I was delighted to learn how human beings learn to read, a skill that repurposes pa As you might have noticed if you follow my reviews, I read a fair bit. It was therefore fascinating to get an insight into what my brain does as it devours books. ‘Proust and the Squid’ provides an impressively clear explanation of neuroscientific research on this front, as well as a brief history of reading. Wolf discusses recent findings enthusiastically, while showing how much is still unknown and/or disputed. I was delighted to learn how human beings learn to read, a skill that repurposes parts of our brains that certainly didn’t evolve for this. Wolf also explains the various ways in which that learning can be impeded, which vary according to language. I’d never thought of this before, but of course different types of languages require slightly different neural paths: Japanese readers offer a particularly interesting example because each reader’s brain must learn two very different writing systems: one of these is a very efficient syllabary (kana) used especially for foreign words, names of cities, names of persons, and newer words in Japanese; and the second is an older Chinese-influenced logographic script (kanji). When reading kanji, Japanese readers use pathways similar to those of the Chinese; when reading kana, they use pathways much more similar to alphabet readers. In other words, not only are different pathways utilised by readers of Chinese and English, but different routes can be used within the same brain for reading different types of scripts. And because of the brain’s prodigious ability to adapt its design, the reader can become efficient in each language. Reading becomes an automatic skill as the brain forms shortcuts to perform the various tasks involved more quickly. Perhaps my favourite part of the book was a detailed breakdown of each step and where in the brain is activated at each point, a subsection titled ‘Every word has 500 milliseconds of fame’. Also notable are the theories of dyslexia, a problem that of course did not exist until reading became widespread. Just as the brain pathways required to read vary by language, so does the nature of dyslexia: Depending on what is emphasised in any given language (fluency in German; visual spatial memory in Chinese; phonological skills in English), there will somewhat different faces of dyslexia, as well as different predictors of reading failure. […] Among Spanish speakers, researchers in Madrid found sub-types similar to our double deficit [naming speed and phoneme awareness] classification, with one striking difference: comprehension among the most affected subtype appeared far less impaired in Spanish readers with dyslexia than in English readers with dyslexia. Similar data emerged for Hebrew. […] It appears that the shorter time needed for decoding in these languages allows more time for comprehension than in English. […] When phonological skills play a more significant role in reading acquisition, as they do in less regular languages like English and French, phoneme awareness and decoding accuracy are often very deficient – and are good predictors of dyslexia. When these skills play a less dominant role in reading (in the transparent orthographies like German, and the more logographic writing systems), processing speed becomes the stronger diagnostic predictor of reading performance, and reading fluency and comprehension issues dominate the profile of dyslexia. In these more transparent languages – Spanish, German, Finnish, Dutch, Greek, and Italian – the child with dyslexia exhibits fewer problems decoding words and more problems reading connected text fluently with good comprehension. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of reading’s early history, including hieroglyphics and the invention of the Greek alphabet, with current research. This emphasises the complexity and variability of reading across time and geography in a relatively short book. Although the style is accessible and breaks down complex concepts for the non-scientist, you can tell Wolf is an academic because the whole thing is so well-structured. (I often notice the difference in structural rigour between non-fiction by academics and journalists.) The concluding chapter raises questions and concerns about the transition to more digital reading, which I gather are considered in Wolf’s more recent book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. I’m curious to read that too, of course. ‘Proust and the Squid’ was first published in 2008, so it’ll be interesting to see how research has advanced since. Finally, I think this book would be of particular interest to parents, as it explains in detail the stages a child goes through when learning to read. This provides useful guidance on how to support their learning, which also helpfully informs my choice of books to buy for friends babies as they get older. Rhyming poetry looks like a particularly good option.

  8. 5 out of 5

    David

    This is an interesting book, organized in three sections. In the first section, Maryanne Wolf describes how the human race developed reading (and writing, of course). Symbols denoting words evolved into symbols denoting syllables and then individual sounds, as letters. As Wolf reiterates, this evolution took 2,000 years, yet a child learns to read in 2,000 days. The development of an alphabet was a strikingly innovative concept. Scholars do not agree on the definition of an alphabet, and by some This is an interesting book, organized in three sections. In the first section, Maryanne Wolf describes how the human race developed reading (and writing, of course). Symbols denoting words evolved into symbols denoting syllables and then individual sounds, as letters. As Wolf reiterates, this evolution took 2,000 years, yet a child learns to read in 2,000 days. The development of an alphabet was a strikingly innovative concept. Scholars do not agree on the definition of an alphabet, and by some definitions, Hebrew does not have an alphabet, as it has no letters for vowel sounds. The second section describes how children learn to read. Different parts of the brain are responsible for different aspects of reading. Reading different languages puts different demands on the brain. Brain scans show that readers of Chinese use different parts of the brain than do readers of English. The third section describes the various types of dyslexia. Many seriously creative people probably had dyslexia to some degree; Leonardo da Vinci, Auguste Rodin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Charles Schwabb, and many others. As other authors mention as well, Wolf discusses in some detail the reasons why Socrates was so strongly opposed to the "new" invention of writing. Wolf shows that since writing was still so new in Socrates' time, he did not yet fully grasp the positive consequences of reading. The main consequence, according to Wolf, begins to be appreciated after reading becomes a semi-automatic skill. Then the reader has time, while reading, to "go beyond" the text, and think about the unwritten meanings.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jasmine

    "My major conclusion from an examination of the developing reader is a cautionary one. I fear that many of our children are in danger of becoming just what Socrates warned us against - a society of decoders of information, whose false sense of knowing distracts them from a deeper development of their intellectual potential. It does not need to be so, if we teach them well..." p.226 "Socrates feared above all else that the 'semblance of truth,' conveyed by the seeming permanence of this written la "My major conclusion from an examination of the developing reader is a cautionary one. I fear that many of our children are in danger of becoming just what Socrates warned us against - a society of decoders of information, whose false sense of knowing distracts them from a deeper development of their intellectual potential. It does not need to be so, if we teach them well..." p.226 "Socrates feared above all else that the 'semblance of truth,' conveyed by the seeming permanence of this written language, would lead to the end of the search for true knowledge, and that this loss would mean the death of human virtue as we know it. Socrates never knew the secret at the heart of reading: the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before. Proust knew this secret, and we do. The mysterious, invisible gift of 'time to think beyond' is the reading brain's greatest achievement... p. 229

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ashok Rao

    We were never born to read. Then how did we learn to read? That’s what this book is all about. It’s not an easy read but definitely an interesting one. Read slowly and you will realise how important it is know how our brains acquired the skill of reading.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Janie

    *Weak*, dude. A handful of reviewers here mentioned that Wolf's writing is too difficult and technical for layfolk. On the other hand, the writing wasn't research-based enough; one reviewer mentioned that Wolf "seemed more interested in linguistics lite rather than delving into the brain processes". I agree on both counts, though the latter was the one that stuck out to me. Wolf's writing isn't good enough to stand alone without knowing her audience. I would have liked either a good, widely access *Weak*, dude. A handful of reviewers here mentioned that Wolf's writing is too difficult and technical for layfolk. On the other hand, the writing wasn't research-based enough; one reviewer mentioned that Wolf "seemed more interested in linguistics lite rather than delving into the brain processes". I agree on both counts, though the latter was the one that stuck out to me. Wolf's writing isn't good enough to stand alone without knowing her audience. I would have liked either a good, widely accessible synthesis for layfolk or a new or more intricate, *heavily research focused and cited* explanation or exploration for people who are professionally involved in language and literacy. I've spent years in reading/language development classes getting two degrees related to the "science of the reading brain", which I think increases, not reduces, my opportunities for enjoying any purposeful angle on the subject. Wolf hardly threw me a bone. general pros: + An interesting job of responding to the claim that alphabets are superior to other writing systems + Ideas about dyslexia general cons: - Far too often she'd say "the brain shows" without citing a particular study - The pictures and diagrams were crude - I thought the title held such promise, but halfway through the book I felt taken in by a gimmick There was one part where she mentions a forthcoming study from Tufts (her uni) about the phonemic differences between Standard American English (SAE) and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and how they hypothesize the differences in AAVE make it harder for kids speaking AAVE to learn to read. I really wonder about the assumptions behind this -- think about all the different, whacked out phonemic dialectical differences in Britain, for example. No one is saying that those Brits can't learn to read because of it. There seems to be an assumption that SAE has some magical phoneme-grapheme correspondence that other dialects don't have, which I think is just silly. I'm ready for her to prove me wrong ... as long as she can hand me the evidence. This book made me crazy.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Radiantflux

    98th book for 2019. As a parent—albeit with a background in psychology—I found this a pretty helpful book to orientate myself on what to expect as my proto-reader four-year-old daughter takes her first tentative steps towards reading. What's amazing about reading, at least from a neuropsychological perspective, is that it's not a evolutionary evolved aspect of the brain; unlike say grasping for coffee cup or recognizing a face or talking to a friend. There is no "reading center" in the brain. Rea 98th book for 2019. As a parent—albeit with a background in psychology—I found this a pretty helpful book to orientate myself on what to expect as my proto-reader four-year-old daughter takes her first tentative steps towards reading. What's amazing about reading, at least from a neuropsychological perspective, is that it's not a evolutionary evolved aspect of the brain; unlike say grasping for coffee cup or recognizing a face or talking to a friend. There is no "reading center" in the brain. Reading is a neural kludge, something that needs to be learned, where literally different parts of the brain have to be linked together in a very specific fashion for it work; strikingly different types of reading (e.g., Chinese characters versus phonetic letters) give rise to different wiring/activation patterns in the brain. For at least 99% of the history of Homo Sapiens no human brain could read. It's therefore not surprising that a significant proportion of the population have difficultly learning his non-natural skill. Her advice to parents is non-controversial: before about five years is too early for the brains of most children to learn to read; reading lots of books to children show a positive correlation to child reading skills later; basically good language skills by the child pre-reading, equates to good reading skills later. But as she emphasizes throughout the book, the skill of reading is not something at happens all at once. It's something to develop and cultivate throughout life. 3-stars.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Hayes

    I learned a lot from Maryanne Wolf's history of reading, starting with the meaning of the title: The squid taught us (in the 1950s) how neurons fire and transmit to each other and gave later scientists the wherewithal to become neuroscientists. Proust saw reading as a way for humans to discover myriad realities, to go where no man has gone before (at least until Captain Kirk arrived on the scene!) The book begins with a short history of writing systems, starting with the first, which was in reali I learned a lot from Maryanne Wolf's history of reading, starting with the meaning of the title: The squid taught us (in the 1950s) how neurons fire and transmit to each other and gave later scientists the wherewithal to become neuroscientists. Proust saw reading as a way for humans to discover myriad realities, to go where no man has gone before (at least until Captain Kirk arrived on the scene!) The book begins with a short history of writing systems, starting with the first, which was in reality an accounting system: clay tokens enclosed in clay envelopes, impressed with markings to show what commodity was being tracked. There is some scientific instruction about how our brains work as we are reading (I learned that people reading in Chinese, Japanese and English use different parts parts of their brains while reading, because of the basic natures of the three languages). Each section is introduced by a passage describing how famous writers (Hermann Hesse, Graham Greene, Sartre) felt about reading. I learned too that the human brain was not designed to read, that reading is accomplished by "recycling" brain structures that were originally for other purposes. There is a very interesting section which speaks about what happens when the brain is not able to re-invent itself, when it cannot learn to read properly, and why dyslexia is often accompanied by great talents of a different nature (artistic, organizational, athletic). This part was particularly interesting to me as most of the members of my family (on my father's side) suffer from dyslexia, including my brother, my half brother and his three children. Ms. Wolf leaves us with some questions about the future of reading. p 220-221: When all is said and done, of course, Socrates' worries were not so much about literacy as about what might happen to knowledge if the young had unguided, uncritical access to information. ... Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness? An interesting book. I was, as Socrates cautioned against, forced to read it rather quickly as it must go to the next participant in the book ring. I will re-read it at some point. - - - - - - - - - - - another quote: p 138:"...For young readers who are moving from simply mastering content to discovering what lies beneath the surface of a text, the literature of fantasy and magic is ideal. Think of the many images that Tolkien uses in Lord of the Rings to portray good and evil. 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. To figure out how to elude ring-wraiths and dragons, and how to do what is right, calls on all of one's wits. During their different journeys, Huck and Frodo learned to choose virtuous actions, however powerfully they are challenged. And so do the young readers who accompany them all the way."

  14. 5 out of 5

    May Ling

    Summary: This book is great. There are a lot of haters. Those people likely have reading problems (argument supported below). Well done Wolf. I caught only 1 thing that I blanched at briefly. Most of the arguments against this book have to do with people who felt stupid, while reading it. One person failed to even read the subtitle and chided Wolf on the book having nothing to do with Proust and the Squid. Others felt the book to be too technical. It's rather technical, but perfect for what I'm Summary: This book is great. There are a lot of haters. Those people likely have reading problems (argument supported below). Well done Wolf. I caught only 1 thing that I blanched at briefly. Most of the arguments against this book have to do with people who felt stupid, while reading it. One person failed to even read the subtitle and chided Wolf on the book having nothing to do with Proust and the Squid. Others felt the book to be too technical. It's rather technical, but perfect for what I'm researching. A third set, wrote reviews saying they were upset about Socrates and his hatred of reading. Too bad, they failed at basic reading comprehension. Wolf actually does not agree with Socrates, so your review only highlight your inability to read, not any issues with Wolf as an author. Ok.... now that I've gotten that out of the way, the book is pretty great, particularly for what I'm researching. I like that she describes the history of language, but what many people missed is why she's talking about it. The idea is that if the brain is rewiring, what precisely is it rewiring to do. This is a real question that gets missed. You are essentially accessing meaning by letters. It's weird. That's why all the other pictorial languages are relevant. Incidentally, that's also why the history of what people were originally trying to do is also relevant. If you understand that point and then read her history it will make more sense how all that fits in with the Reading Brain subtitle. P. 54 - Cognitive efficiency depends on the third feature of the brain: the ability of its specialized regions to reach a speed that is almost automatic. The implications of cognitive automaticity for human intellectual development are potentially staggering. If we can recognize symbols at almost automatic speeds, we can allocate more time to mental processes that are continuously expanding when we read and write. BRAVO and wow! That my friends is her point and this is what reading has the potential to do. But so long as people hate this activity, it cannot do it. (We are so simpatico here and this is why I'm creating hte course that i'm focused on in speed reading.) P.98 One of the more intriguing questions about children's first writing is whether or not they can read it. In fact, most children are hard-pressed to read back what they have written, but oh, do they want to. Awesome. I need this fact and it confirms something I've been curious about. I mean if we are teaching much of the skills of reading indirectly through writing then how stupid are we - as a society to teach it this way? P. 124 - this is the section on the idea that multiple meanings enhance comprehension. There are other works that suggest as many as 12 engagements with a word are required for the word to become in one's lexicon. Here I think she's speaking to the idea that you really don't know until you really appreciate the meaning. P. 128 - Here it's letters as patterns. It's often forgotten that reading is a specific type of pattern recognition function. P. 142 - After we know a word very well, we no longer need to analyze it in a labor-intensive way. Our stored letter pattern and word representations, particularly in the left hemisphere, activate a faster system. P. 146-7 The role of memory in reading. Basically we use a combination. "Working memory ... is our cognitive blackboard or scratch pad. Key to expert reading, working memory ensures that we can keep the initial visual identification of a word in mind long enough o add the rest of the information about the word (such as meaning and grammatical use). When fluent readers identify a string of words, particularly one with considerable semantic and grammatical information, they use both working memory and associative memory. The later helps us recall information that has been stored long-term ... P. 148 - One brilliant design feature of our eyes allows us to see "ahead" into a parafoveal region and still farther along the line of text into the peripheral region. We now know that when we read in English we actually see about fourteen or fifteen letters to the right of our fixed focus, and we see the same number of letters to the left if we read in Hebrew. Because we have foveal and parafoveal information, we always have a preview of what lies ahead. The preview then becomes - milliseconds later - easier to recognize, contributing further to our automaticity. My belief, without having the extensive science of Wolf is that Speed readers have access to both left and right. Also, they are not just taking in information on words, but also grammar in a way that allows the parafoveal to act a bit differently. Still.... cool. P. 153 - How fast we read any word is greatly influenced by the quality and quantity of the semantic knowledge we have that is activated along with the words. P. 154 - The more we know about the underlying life of a word, the more cumulative and convergent the contributions from different brain areas are, and the better and faster we read that word. P. 160 - The Dynamic interaction between text and life experiences is bidirectional: we bring our life experiences to the text, and the text changes our life experiences. P. 191... I didn't totally understand.... it had to do with the way in which different cross- languages have different types of language breakdowns. Can't tell if what she's saying is that reading issues are different or more prevalent in some languages. They do not affect others. I have mixed feelings on this because I writing was created thing, not the brain. My point is kind of this... colorblind is a problem seeing color, which is a gift for those that have a mechanical difficulty. For people with this issue, they have to figure out the work arounds to seeing color. It's the same I think with certain types of language disorders, so you are actually teaching the work arounds.... I think.... or rather I think this is what she is trying to say. P. 219 She quotes a cultural historian Walter Ong. The gist of the quote is the idea that writing touches the psyche in a way that is rather unique. He ends this long quote with "Writing is culture raising." P. 223 - This is the Matthew effect, i.e. the virtuous cycle of reading. "First, the idea acquisition of reading is based on the development of ....[reading skills]... and the ability of these systems to become integrated and synchronized into increasingly fluent comprehension. Second, as reading develops, each of these abilities is facilitated further by this development. Knowing "whats in a word" helps you read it better; reading a word deepens your understanding of its place in the continuum of knowledge. This is the dynamic relationship between the brain's contribution to reading and reading's contribution to the brain's cognitive capacities. So in empathy with the many that found it technical it is. This book was written by an academic and not dumbed down. I loved it. If you felt that way, I'd encourage reading around the topic and coming back to appreciate what Wolf is saying.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Steve Kettmann

    At times the book probably delved deeper into the science than I as a general read would have preferred, and the emphasis on dyslexia was at times distracting - but no question, a fascinating, valuable book. For two points alone I'd recommended it: One, Wolf's fluent, intelligent consideration of Socrates' opposition to the development of written language, which he feared would have an adverse affect on the imaginative capacity of the educated. Two, the whole notion that read books actually rewi At times the book probably delved deeper into the science than I as a general read would have preferred, and the emphasis on dyslexia was at times distracting - but no question, a fascinating, valuable book. For two points alone I'd recommended it: One, Wolf's fluent, intelligent consideration of Socrates' opposition to the development of written language, which he feared would have an adverse affect on the imaginative capacity of the educated. Two, the whole notion that read books actually rewires our brains - and changes who we are and how we think. Here's a good quote from near the end: "Socrates feared above all else that the 'semblance of truth,' conveyed by the seeming permanence of this written language, would lead to the end of the search for true knowledge, and that this loss would mean the death of human virtue as we know it. Socrates never knew the secret at the heart of reading: the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before. Proust knew this secret, and we do. The mysterious, invisible gift of time to think beyond is the reading brain's greatest achievement."

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lauredhel

    What I Learned From This Book: Alphabetic systems of writing are much more evolved and efficient than ideographic systems, and therefore "our" brains are Wired Differently from The Chinese. And that "we" all grew up reading Twain and Austen and Proust. Also, the internetz are destroying literacy and creating a new generation of people who are unable to read or memorise anything, I mean real reading and real memorisation, like we did in the old days. We know this because if we ask children how ma What I Learned From This Book: Alphabetic systems of writing are much more evolved and efficient than ideographic systems, and therefore "our" brains are Wired Differently from The Chinese. And that "we" all grew up reading Twain and Austen and Proust. Also, the internetz are destroying literacy and creating a new generation of people who are unable to read or memorise anything, I mean real reading and real memorisation, like we did in the old days. We know this because if we ask children how many poems they know by heart, it isn't many, unlike when we were lads and lasses and English was taught properly from the far superior ink 'n' paper. Of course we didn't ask them how many songs they know the lyrics to. What on earth could you mean? That's not _real_ memory. Or _real_ poetry. Also, chapter-long technical passages should be written in italics to make them more difficult to read, complete with a patronising introduction about how you can skip this bit if it's too complicated for your tiny mind. Ugh. Yes, I'm exaggerating - a little. I'm sure there were plenty of good bits in this book, but I was mostly just irritated.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Holly

    I first read this in 2007 when it was published, and I'm re-reading it this week before I get a copy of Wolf's new book, Reader, Come Home. I also want to refresh my memory with regard to Wolf's thoughts on dyslexia. For a while I've been concerned that my seven-year old niece still cannot read, and I really think she may be dyslexic. Neither her parents nor, apparently, her teachers, are overly concerned that she is behind grade level in reading, because she is quite precocious in all other are I first read this in 2007 when it was published, and I'm re-reading it this week before I get a copy of Wolf's new book, Reader, Come Home. I also want to refresh my memory with regard to Wolf's thoughts on dyslexia. For a while I've been concerned that my seven-year old niece still cannot read, and I really think she may be dyslexic. Neither her parents nor, apparently, her teachers, are overly concerned that she is behind grade level in reading, because she is quite precocious in all other areas, and they seem to think one day it'll just "click". I'm not an educator, but I think it's vital that she catch up this year (second grade) or have a true assessment of what is going on with her reading before she falls far behind her classmates. I truly think her brain is "wired" differently - she still mixes up letters, writes them reversed, can't always name the initial letters of common words, doesn't have "sight words" (not even "the," I was shocked to realize!) and her eyes just don't focus on the words on the page. We were playing charades last week and she and I were coming up with things for the group to act out, and she wanted to do phrases - she reeled off a whole list of them for me to write down, and she was recalling them all from auditory memory from a story that other kids in her summer group had read (the cow jumped over the moon, a bird in the hand, etc.) - she was remarkable at drawing them out of memory, but she had not read the words - she was only recalling the sounds. She also memorizes entire books - she fooled her parents all last spring when she convinced them she was reading a certain book, but I watched her "read" it and noticed that her eyes were not on the words, and when I wrote down a word from the book on another piece of paper, she didn't know the word. I'm worried. Also on the to-read shelf: books by Mark Seidenberg, Stanislas Dehaene, and Daniel Willingham.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Oleksandr Golovatyi

    Best quotes: "first three grades a child “learns to read,” and in the next grades the child “reads to learn.”" "Modern cognitive neuroscience reinforces what Huey suspected—how vast, how complex, and how widely distributed are the brain’s networks that underlie even one half second of reading." "We now know that when we read in English, we actually see about fourteen or fifteen letters to the right of our fixed focus," "Because we use foveal and parafoveal information, we always have a preview of wh Best quotes: "first three grades a child “learns to read,” and in the next grades the child “reads to learn.”" "Modern cognitive neuroscience reinforces what Huey suspected—how vast, how complex, and how widely distributed are the brain’s networks that underlie even one half second of reading." "We now know that when we read in English, we actually see about fourteen or fifteen letters to the right of our fixed focus," "Because we use foveal and parafoveal information, we always have a preview of what lies ahead." Ad: Brain Training for Better Reading. Readlax: Train Your Brain. Read 3x Faster. Be More Productive. Readlax is the Online Brain Exercises for Better Reading Skill.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jon

    Wolfe convincingly layers the story of reading disabilities on top of the story of the development of the reading brain and the story of language itself. Her conclusions are similar (but more thorough and more effectively supported) to those drawn by Davis and Braun in The Gift of Dyslexia. I learned from the middle section of the book that neurologists believe the human brain was never wired specifically for the task of reading. That means that in order to read, each individual's brain must bui Wolfe convincingly layers the story of reading disabilities on top of the story of the development of the reading brain and the story of language itself. Her conclusions are similar (but more thorough and more effectively supported) to those drawn by Davis and Braun in The Gift of Dyslexia. I learned from the middle section of the book that neurologists believe the human brain was never wired specifically for the task of reading. That means that in order to read, each individual's brain must build new connections among systems that are genetically inherited, such as short-term memory, sequencing, and visual cueing systems. That the human brain ever succeeds in this task of reading at all is a testament to the to the brain's ability to adapt itself. That some individuals' brains resist making these adaptations does not mean that they are failures, but, in many cases, that their brains are built for other purposes. Now my conclusions: We, as educators, must learn to play to the strengths of so-called learning disabled students, as opposed to making them feel like lesser beings year after year. How? It begins with thorough, accurate, humane, and ongoing forms of assessment, such as the systematic study of learning disfunctions promoted by Harvard pediatrician Mel Levine. Then, we use the assessments to design instruction. For example, a student who is weak in visual cueing but strong in auditory processing should be given opportunities to hear any text he is required to read. I know these ideas exist already in text books and college classrooms-I'm not saying a whole lot new, just that we need to put the ideas into action in public eduation and stop the ridiculous notion that one narrowly designed standardized test every couple of years combined with inadequate funding is actually going to prevent our children from being left behind.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nicky

    Despite the exciting-sounding title, this is actually a book about the science of how we read. Unfortunately, it’s been a while since I read it and the review I wrote then is one of the reviews that I seem to have lost in the ether, but I do remember finding it generally entertaining, though I wished at times there were more citations so I could go and read more about the things Wolf claims. One thing I really want to look up is the results of the study into AAVE (African-American Vernacular Engl Despite the exciting-sounding title, this is actually a book about the science of how we read. Unfortunately, it’s been a while since I read it and the review I wrote then is one of the reviews that I seem to have lost in the ether, but I do remember finding it generally entertaining, though I wished at times there were more citations so I could go and read more about the things Wolf claims. One thing I really want to look up is the results of the study into AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) and how it affects the acquisition of reading skills. It seems a little eyebrow-raising that there should be specific problems with AAVE and not with, say, the Yorkshire dialect in Britain — maybe that’s for lack of studying it, I don’t know. It just seems a little bit suspect when you consider the way people view users of AAVE as uneducated, and all those other racial stereotypes. Some interesting stuff about dyslexia, though. Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    I was really looking forward to this one and while I did find it really interesting, it was also a little to detailed/technical in places which made it a little harder to follow, especially as there was no glossary or footnotes to clarify these points. I'm sure if I was more familiar with the study of languages this wouldn't have been a problem but as a science nerd, languages are not my strong point. That aside I did enjoy the bits I could follow, which was a large majority of the book, and the I was really looking forward to this one and while I did find it really interesting, it was also a little to detailed/technical in places which made it a little harder to follow, especially as there was no glossary or footnotes to clarify these points. I'm sure if I was more familiar with the study of languages this wouldn't have been a problem but as a science nerd, languages are not my strong point. That aside I did enjoy the bits I could follow, which was a large majority of the book, and the progression of language, writing and reading from the early civilisations to modern day was interesting and enlightening. My favourite section was where Wolf looks at the differences in brain function, speed and areas of activity between different levels of readers and how this builds up and changes over time. Overall not a bad read but a bit technical in places (have a dictionary handy).

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Despite the potentially fascinating premise (that subtitle!), this was duller than dishwater. It read like a meta-analysis of the current scientific literature. It was also very repetitive; the two main points (that reading is an act that the brain must learn by fusing together many unrelated areas and that the brains of people who read different languages use very different areas) were interesting, but repeated constantly and not really enough to carry a whole book. Sadly disappointing.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mag

    This delightful title hides the book on the reading brain. Proust and the Squid- the Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Marianne Wolff is the full title, and the book is quite good. It has sections on history of different scripts and languages, an extensive one on reading development, research into the neurophysiology of the reading brain, comparisons of the reading brain vs. non-reading brain, reading disabilities and the future of reading. Here are some points I jotted down after reading This delightful title hides the book on the reading brain. Proust and the Squid- the Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Marianne Wolff is the full title, and the book is quite good. It has sections on history of different scripts and languages, an extensive one on reading development, research into the neurophysiology of the reading brain, comparisons of the reading brain vs. non-reading brain, reading disabilities and the future of reading. Here are some points I jotted down after reading it: • We are not wired for reading; we are wired for object recognition, and for aural language processing. • Reading involves areas used for those plus it recycles many other neuronal connections mainly in the visual cortex and in the occipital-temporal areas. • With reading, our brain gets reorganized, which in turn expands the ways we are able to think, which aids in the intellectual and evolutionary development of our species. • When a small child is learning two languages at the same time, the brain area used for this process is the same. • When a child/ adult is learning one language later in life than the other, the brain areas used are different. • Different writing systems set up their own distinctive brain networks in the development of reading. • Languages with different scripts use different areas of the brain to process written language- for example for Chinese it’s object recognition areas, for French and English a blend of object recognition and temporal lobe access, and for the language with more regular symbol-sound correspondence – it's quick temporal lobe access. Children learning reading in more regular scripts learn to read on average a year earlier than children learning more irregular or object based scripts. • Since dyslexic individuals are also more creative, and more spatially gifted; dyslexia may be more prevalent in traditionally illiterate societies, or societies where having spatial ability/and or creativity gives an individual a better advantage over a bookish individual. • Dyslexia has different forms, and manifests itself differently in different languages. • And finally, quite literally reading changes our life, and our life changes our reading. The book is geared towards parents and teachers with children with dyslexia, but it should be mandatory reading for any language, Special Education and elementary school teacher. Why Proust and the Squid? Well, this you’ll have to find out yourself...

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

    My brain freaks me out. I find idea that the essence of my self, my thoughts--from those that poke sleeping dragons to the ones that net purses--are the transmission of chemicals and the firing of electrical impulses to be, in turns, horrific and mortifying. The brain is the squishiest, messiest, most stomach turning of all the squicky, unclean, vomit-inducing biological facts of human existence. So kudos to Maryanne Wolf for writing a book about the brain that I could actually read. In this boo My brain freaks me out. I find idea that the essence of my self, my thoughts--from those that poke sleeping dragons to the ones that net purses--are the transmission of chemicals and the firing of electrical impulses to be, in turns, horrific and mortifying. The brain is the squishiest, messiest, most stomach turning of all the squicky, unclean, vomit-inducing biological facts of human existence. So kudos to Maryanne Wolf for writing a book about the brain that I could actually read. In this book Wolf discusses the development of reading as a human technology, as something children do, and as a challenge for dyslexic people. I find all three of these stories utterly fascinating--the written word is, of course, my favorite piece of technology--and am therefore able to pay attention when she details how corpus callosum damage can cause late-onset dyslexia. And if you can't understand why this book is more terrifying than anything out of Stephen King's oeuvre, remember that you too could have a stroke affecting your corpus callosum. Then where would you be? You certainly couldn't read up on the subject. The well written interweaving of Proust--the personal/intellectual aspect of reading, the individual journey--and the squid--the squicky-yet-intriguing scientific bits--makes this book well worth reading, especially if you intend to someday guide another person through the process of learning how.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Nelson Zagalo

    An interesting book divided in three great sections: history, learning and pathologies. The first one is the most fascinating, because Wolf digs deep into the history of reading, questioning some of our basic assumptions of today's daily lives. In the second one Wolf works around the human brain changes produced by the learning to read, and in the last one she gives an account of the problems surrounding dislexia. The first half is highly enjoying, however throughout the explanation of our readin An interesting book divided in three great sections: history, learning and pathologies. The first one is the most fascinating, because Wolf digs deep into the history of reading, questioning some of our basic assumptions of today's daily lives. In the second one Wolf works around the human brain changes produced by the learning to read, and in the last one she gives an account of the problems surrounding dislexia. The first half is highly enjoying, however throughout the explanation of our reading biology she looses our interest. It could be because of excess of technicality, or just because of the lack of matter and depth. Having a full section on dislexia is too much, more even when the subject is treated throughout the entire section in the same manner, just talking about the psychological dramas faced by kids with the problem. The best of the book is the discussion on Socrates arguments against writing, where Wolf excels in justifying the effects of reading and writing in human brain and culture, which justifies the appearance of Proust in the title. However I was expecting more, we finish the book with just some interesting lines and anecdotes on reading, not much for an entire book on the subject.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Oscar

    Wolf's book operates under the belief that reading is not an innate function of the human brain. She argues that speech (assuming that there is not any evidence of pathology) is picked up automatically by anyone exposed to it. The ability to read, however, is a completely different matter. One can be surrounded by text and never learn to read. So how and when did the brain 'learn' how to read? Woolf attempts to answer such a question by looking at more visually oriented writing systems (think: h Wolf's book operates under the belief that reading is not an innate function of the human brain. She argues that speech (assuming that there is not any evidence of pathology) is picked up automatically by anyone exposed to it. The ability to read, however, is a completely different matter. One can be surrounded by text and never learn to read. So how and when did the brain 'learn' how to read? Woolf attempts to answer such a question by looking at more visually oriented writing systems (think: hieroglyphics) and examining the development of such writing systems into more letter based systems that forces the brain to combine several abilities in order to read. Wolf also looks at newer literacies such as the internet and discusses what these new literacies mean for the reading brain. I enjoyed this book partly since it provides a good historical and social overview of reading and its relationship to people. And I enjoyed the fact that Wolf discusses her personal relationship with reading and that what makes reading so special. Despite the fact that the act of reading has such a long and universal history, it is ultimately one of the most personal activities that exist.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    The more you learn about what goes on in the brain during reading, the more improbable it starts to seem. Unlike vision or speech, there are no structures that evolved specifically for reading. Instead, other parts of the brain, such as pattern matching and sound recognition, were pressed into service and merged with the brain’s ability to synthesize information from multiple sources. Somehow mankind gained the ability to recognize written symbols and associate the words they referred to with th The more you learn about what goes on in the brain during reading, the more improbable it starts to seem. Unlike vision or speech, there are no structures that evolved specifically for reading. Instead, other parts of the brain, such as pattern matching and sound recognition, were pressed into service and merged with the brain’s ability to synthesize information from multiple sources. Somehow mankind gained the ability to recognize written symbols and associate the words they referred to with the spoken sounds they represented. Brain scans reveal multiple areas lighting up as we read, but not all languages activate the same areas. Pictographic languages such as Chinese rely more heavily on visual areas of the brain than do alphabetic languages. Up to half a dozen discrete brain regions are activated and integrated as a person reads, and the same areas engage whether involved in actual reading or just thinking about letters and words. Many things can disrupt the process of becoming a fluent reader. When the author first raised concerns about reading comprehension in the age of the internet it sounded like overblown hand-wringing, but as she got further into the cultural and physiological processes involved, it became clear that becoming a good reader requires the ability to engage with a text on multiple levels, something not always present in an age of soundbites and video snippets. Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another’s inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness? (p. 221) There are many parts to being able to read easily. It is not just the ability to sound out letters, but also knowing the various vowel combinations, gaining a sense of semantics so that a new word’s meaning can be inferred from its root, and possessing sufficient vocabulary to understand what is being read. The author cites an astounding statistic that by the time they learn to read children who come from homes where they are frequently spoken and read to may have been exposed to 32 million more words than children who were not so engaged. The result is a large vocabulary gap that only widens over the years. “When one realizes that children have to learn about 88,700 written words during their schools years, and that at least 9,000 of those words need to be learned by the end of grade 3, the huge importance of a child’s development of vocabulary becomes crystal-clear.” (p. 123) The book also looks at dyxlexia, and it too is far more complicated than most people think. It reminded me of the description of cancer, that it is not one disease but many, with vast differences between some of them, but all have the same result of uncontrolled cell division. Dyslexia seems to have just as many causes, all resulting in difficulty reading. The most interesting forms were ones where brains just seemed to be wired differently, slowing down the reader’s ability to translate symbols into words. For most people that translation takes place in the left hemisphere, but in some dyslexics it is in the right. As eminent researchers Ovid Tzeng and William Wang observed years ago, the left hemisphere evolved to handle the exquisite precision and timing necessary for human speech and written language; by contrast, the right hemisphere became better suited for operations on a larger scale, such as creativity, pattern deduction, and contextual skills. (p.188) Many brilliant and gifted people have had dyslexia, leading to the intriguing idea that it is not a deficiency but a different way of processing information, sometimes granting an enhanced ability to interpret data from many sources and integrate it into something that goes beyond just words on a page. Finally, there is an observation about something I notice every time I sit down to write an e-mail, a report, or, for that matter, a Goodreads review. I recognized it, but could not have expressed it until I read [Lev] Vygotsky observed that the very process of writing one’s thoughts leads individuals to refine those thoughts and to discover new ways of thinking. … In other words, the writer’s efforts to capture ideas with ever more precise written words contain within them an inner dialogue, which each of us who has struggled to articulate our thoughts knows from the experience of watching our ideas change shape through the sheer effort of writing.” (p. 73). Yes, that’s it exactly. I had this book on my reading list for some time before I got to it. I was kind of put off by the title, which sounded too lighthearted, like it was just going to be a collection of clever anecdotes about reading and readers. It is in fact a good introduction to the science of reading, written for the non-specialist, and including a number of drawings to help help explain what is going on as the reader turns squiggles on the screen or page into words, comprehension, and knowledge.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Eli

    I was really excited about this book. And then I started reading it. It is so bogged down in technical terminology and repetition that exciting parts get lost. And, frankly, I got bored. That almost never happens when it comes to books. But I did. I got bored.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Claudia

    Proust and the Squid. It had been on my radar for a long time. So had thousands of other books. It was easy to ignore. But when it turned up on my reading chair, a gift from my husband who had tired of it after the scientific discussions of brain functions, sporting a book mark only fifty pages in, I decided it was time. So. Off I went. I read reviews that said Wolfe’s intent, to make the mysteries of learning to read accessible to the general public, fell short. I’ll say. I’m NOT the general pub Proust and the Squid. It had been on my radar for a long time. So had thousands of other books. It was easy to ignore. But when it turned up on my reading chair, a gift from my husband who had tired of it after the scientific discussions of brain functions, sporting a book mark only fifty pages in, I decided it was time. So. Off I went. I read reviews that said Wolfe’s intent, to make the mysteries of learning to read accessible to the general public, fell short. I’ll say. I’m NOT the general public when it comes to reading instruction, and she often left me in the dust. I felt like she wanted us to know she was the smartest person in the room. I have no problem with that…I am probably never the smartest person in the room, unless I’m by myself. It’s never been a goal of mine. So, I fought her…her academic vocabulary, her convoluted sentences, Even her title metaphor and analogy. Proust, because of his insightful reflections about reading – his memories of finding that perfect hideaway as a child to sit and read. That metaphor of reading as a sanctuary is one I can identify with. As a child, living at my grandmother’s farm, far away from other children, I commandeered one of the trees, right above the white fence, as my reading tree. It had a long, strong horizontal limb that I could lounge on, leaning against the trunk. I read there, in my tree, and never felt alone. The squid analogy was more obtuse for me…squids are used in research to study how neurons fire, and how the brain can repair itself at the cellular level when necessary. I slogged through the very scientific pages my husband loved…thinking to myself, I don’t need to know all of this. I can’t use it in the classroom, or with a young reader. I will confess that I made the decision NOT to research and look up all the parts of the brain as she discussed them…I just kept reading. This book is a study of the unnatural act of reading. Wolfe contends our brains were not wired for reading, as they were wired for communication. She takes us back to the beginnings of writing and computation systems, and tells us that alphabetical systems are the easiest for humans to incorporate into the new connections (that’s the squid part) in our brains that make more connections, and give us the pathways to do this miraculous thing: read. Read with comprehension. Read to find that sanctuary (the Proust part). Again, I didn’t need the history of writing and reading around the world to get her point: through magic, or amazing feats of biology at the neuron level, or whimsical serendipity, humans rewire their brains, one at a time, to understand squiggles on paper, or papyrus, or clay. And now we fully expect all humans to do this. Before they’re nine years old. “The period of childhood provides the foundation for one of the most important social, emotional, and cognitive skills a human being can learn: the ability to take on someone else’s perspective.” Her stories of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle make the point that within three generations, literacy was expected of our great thinkers…she points out that Socrates’ deep aversion to what he believed were the limitations of reading are very similar to OUR contemporary concerns about our young people’s facility with computers, which may demand different skills than traditional reading. “Questions about access to knowledge run throughout human history – from the fruit of the tree of knowledge to Google. Socrates’ concerns become greatly amplified by our present capacity for everyone with a computer to learn very, very quickly about virtually anything, anywhere, anytime, at an ‘unguided’ computer screen…how would Socrates respond to a filmed version of a Socratic dialogue, to his entry in Wikipedia, or to a screen clip on YouTube?” She tells us that several systems must work together when reading: phonological, semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic…she gives definitions of these, but I’m glad I didn’t have to rely only on her words… She shows how children from word-impoverished homes come to school and the gargantuan task of learning to read already behind. Tens of thousands of words have been unheard and un-learned. She tells us that trying to make up that deficit may be impossible. She describes several stages of readers: Emerging Pre-reader, Novice, “Merryl Pischa: “Why is it that the hardest thing children are ever asked to do is the first thing they’re asked to do?” They can hear and segment larger units of sounds…learn to hear and manipulate smaller phonemes in syllables and words. Knowing the Meaning Enhances the Reading. Reading Propels Word Knowledge. Multiple Meanings Enhance Comprehension” Decoding, “Readers need to add at least 3000 words to what they can decode, making the 37 common letter patterns learned earlier not enough...semantic, syntactic and morphological “For children who are word-poor, their impoverished semantic and syntactic development has consequences for their orals and their written language “For the word-poor child, reality actually worsens because of the usually undiscussed fact that precious little explicit vocabulary instruction goes on in most classrooms” Fluent Comprehending, “The fluent, comprehending reader’s brain is on the threshold of attaining the single most essential gift of the evolved reading brain: time. With…decoding processes almost automatic, the young fluent brain learns to integrate more metaphorical, inferential, analogical, affective background and experiential knowledge with every newly won millisecond…the brain becomes fast enough to think and feel differently” Expert. “an almost instantaneous fusion of cognitive, linguistic, and affective processes; multiple brain regions; and billions of neurons that are the sum of all that goes into reading.” I appreciated her definition of ‘fluency’: “Fluency is not a matter of speed; it is a matter of being able to utilize all the special knowledge a child has about a word—its letters, letter patterns, meanings, grammatical functions, roots, and endings—fast enough to have time to think and comprehend. Everything about a word contributes to how fast it can be read. The point of becoming fluent, therefore, is to read—really read—and understand.” It’s all the rage nowadays to insist that kids must read nonsense quickly…as if the speed is the only criteria that matters. I love that she says fluency involved comprehension. She did fall into the trap of ‘learning to read-reading to learn.’ But I checked the copyright, and perhaps she was working on faulty research. That canard has been debunked by researchers and educators. And yet she says this about expert readers: “The end of reading development doesn’t exist; the unending story of reading moves ever forward, leaving the eye, the tongue, the work, the author for a new place from which the ‘truth breaks forth, fresh and green,” changing the brain and the reader every time.” This section, to me, was the most helpful, most accessible. I can see parents using this information to find more ways to support their young readers. Wolfe is the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research (or was) at Tufts. Her work has focused on struggling readers. Ironically, one of her own children struggles, and she describes him as ‘dyslexic’. Here is another deep pool, like ‘learning to read, reading to learn,’ that makes me wary and suspicious. But she neatly sidesteps my concern. She writes, not about definitions, but of sources. She has carefully set us up to know reading is not normal, and reminds us of all the pathways our brains have to create in order to allow us to read: “Dyslexia cannot be anything so simple as a flaw in the brain’s ‘reading center,’ for no such thing exists.” And “…in terms of human evolution the brain was never meant to read…there are neither genes nor biological structures specific only to reading. Instead, in order to read, each brain must learn to make new circuits by connecting older regions originally designed and genetically programmed for other things, such as recognizing objects and retrieving their names.” She says there tend to be three subsets of dyslexic readers – ones with phoneme awareness problems, ones with slow naming (letters, colors, words) speed, and ones with both. The above descriptions are easier for us to understand than when she falls back into her academic writing: “The dyslexic brain consistently employs more right-hemisphere structures than left-hemisphere structures, beginning with visual association areas and the occipital-temporal zone, extending through the right angular gyrus, supramarginal gyrus, and temporal regions.” Ookkaaaayyyy. This puts it into perspective for all of us: “…although it took our species roughly 2,000 years to make the cognitive breakthroughs necessary to learn to read with an alphabet, today our children have to reach those same insights about print in 2,000 days.” We have students who must perform this task by the time they are nine years old, and prove to reformers that they can read at level. If they don’t, they’re held back. No acknowledgement of the poverty in which they live, both economic and linguist poverty. No. Read-or-else. I am, and always will be, a teacher. A practitioner. I can slog through long descriptions if the payoff at the end is a solution. Something I can do or say tomorrow. Something I can use to help a student succeed. She lets me down, even though this is what she does for a living. Her advice would need to be decoded and rewritten by most educators before it could be of any use. When working with dyslexic kids she suggests the teaching the following: • Semantic families of words to facilitate retrieval • Awareness of sounds within words and connection to letters • Automatic learning of orthographic letter patterns • Syntactic knowledge • Morphological knowledge • Fluency • Comprehension Wolfe’s list above does not help me, or parents looking for answers . But here’s a start: “The more young children are engaged in conversation, the more they will acquire words and concepts. The more young children are read to, the more they will understand the language of books and increase their vocabulary, their knowledge of grammar, and their awareness of the tiny but very important sounds inside words.” And this: “Fluent, silent comprehension in the later phases of reading development would have symbolized for Socrates the most dangerous moment in literacy, because it makes the reader autonomous. It gives each new reader time to make predictions, to form new thoughts, to go beyond the text, and to become an independent learner.” We can and we must do that. We must talk to our children, read to them, read with them. Show them the joy of language, and tell them every day that they’re doing something amazing. They are rewiring rewiring their brains to become readers. So, is this book for everyone? No. Elementary teachers, charged with designing experiences for kids to grow those connections have to plan and design those experiences. This book is too dense for teachers to find the nuggets. Parents may find comfort in some of her findings about what she calls dyslexia, and I’d call reading struggles. But, again…too much science to wade through before you get to those teaching ideas…and you need a dictionary to decode (!) the terminology. There’s a mean part of me who thinks Wolfe wrote this book in this style to show us how very very smart she is…and how even smart parents can have dyslexic kids. Well, duh! She has nothing to feel defensive about. We all struggle with learning something. Kids who struggle with reading are hampered, and I hope the world will be more supportive and less judgmental. If she can help us with that leap of faith, her book will be successful.

  30. 4 out of 5

    whitney

    I see that a lot of the reviews are either frustrated that the book isn't really about Proust, or annoyed that the focus is on dyslexia, or find that the book is written in an "inaccessible" style that feels like a research article. I absolutely see the first two (but these didn't bother me) but am slightly baffled by the last one; this didn't feel like a research article to me AT ALL (except for the section that she explicitly said was going to include a lot of technical detail and gave the rea I see that a lot of the reviews are either frustrated that the book isn't really about Proust, or annoyed that the focus is on dyslexia, or find that the book is written in an "inaccessible" style that feels like a research article. I absolutely see the first two (but these didn't bother me) but am slightly baffled by the last one; this didn't feel like a research article to me AT ALL (except for the section that she explicitly said was going to include a lot of technical detail and gave the reader permission to skip over!) and it makes me wonder whether people are actually frequently reading research articles in this field when they make this comparison, or what it is that they are reacting to in this way. I'm in an adjacent field (cognitive scientist by training, now teaching in a writing program, including a class on "cognition and writing" that contains some discussion of reading) and I found this to be a very engaging read, and was able to draw from it readings to share with my students, which they also found more readable than actual journal articles. I thought the book was fantastic, perhaps because I've wondered about many of the same issues she addresses about what reading and literacy does to the mind and brain, and what's changing about the way we engage with information as we move towards a world full of screens and Google searches and so forth. This was right up my alley, and I want to read her more recent book now, too.

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