Saturday, January 28, 2012

Proust & the Squid: Review

Chosen primarily for the Mixing It Up Challenge (as the entry for Science & Natural History), Proust & the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf sounded really interesting when I went on a hunt for something to fulfill the category. As the annotations told me, "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."

As a book-blogger and, more importantly, as an avid reader from the age of four, I had no need to be convinced of the importance of reading and how very much humanity's intelligence depends on the critical thinking processes that have developed because of our "rewiring" our brain to be able to read. Our brains come prepackaged for oral and visual communication. We're all set to verbalize our needs and share information through speech. We're just as set to take in all the information given to us by our eyes. But, as Wolf says, we were not "born to read" (despite my definite feeling that I, most certainly, was born to read...I mean what would I do with myself if I weren't a reader?). It is only through training and repetition and the "rewiring" of brains...each child making the new connections necessary that allows him or her to read. In fact, according to Wolf, each child completes the 2,000 year process that led to early writing and the interpretation of those symbols in about 2,000 days. That is a miracle, indeed.

This was an interesting book. It gives details about exactly how our brains work when they read. And brains that read English and similarly-based languages differ from from those that read Chinese. We also learn some of the barriers that are involved that lead to reading disabilities--particularly dyslexia--and what those disabilities can teach us about the reading process.

It was also interesting to learn that Socrates had some of the same arguments against the written word that are being made against the transition to internet/visual-based knowledge. It became apparent that Socrates' fear that the ability to think critically would be lost as soon as information was "permanent"--written down so students wouldn't have to memorize it--was unfounded. In actuality, the process of becoming an expert reader encourages the critical thinking process. A recent essay on SAT scores echoes Socrates' fear. It asks "How Low Can They Go?" and tells how students are testing lower and lower on the SAT test portions that place more emphasis on reading skills than vocabulary--rewarding those with refined analytical skills and more prepared to evaluate the underlying meanings of a text. Wolf wonders if the reasons are because current students have had far more exposure to the internet and instant information or if there are other factors involved. I can only say that, as a representative of a college English Department, current students do seem to exhibit fewer and fewer critical thinking skills--at least in my experience.

My main disappointment with the book is that after talking about how she has written this book for the general public, she still is very entrenched in her scientific, scholarly mode and there is much more science thrown at the reader than I anticipated. It is not an incredibly difficult book to read, but it is technical enough that it might put off the more casual reader. Interesting and informative, I give it three stars.


bibliophiliac said...

I've been wanting to read this book for the longest time!
Thanks for an interesting review-this book is somewhere in my house, so maybe I will read it for the Mount TBR Challenge (if I can find it!)....

Anonymous said...

Hi: I read that book a couple of years ago and loved it. I was fascinated by her linkages between reading, dyslexia and neuroscience and I just told my dyslexic friend about it. Happy reading, Ruby