34. ‘Proust and the Squid’…

13 Aug
34. ‘Proust and the Squid’…

Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain,’ Maryanne Wolf

Reading a book about how we read was a surreal experience: like being told not to think about breathing, you find yourself from time to time and paragraph to paragraph slowing your reading pace and thinking about how you understand what is written on the page, which (like being told not to think of purple penguins) naturally led to me regularly stumbling over that section, and having to go back to read it again.
This was an uneven book: more scientific than I had expected, yet more interesting than I had feared it wouldn’t be, it started strong with a history of the emergence of written alphabets from oral languages, and even provided me with a potential banner headline for this blog on just page three of chapter one:

“As the author Joseph Epstein put it, ‘A biography of any literary person ought to deal with what he read and when, for in some sense, we are what we read…'”

The science was not overly obtrusive to a non-scientist like me, with simplistic diagrams of areas of the brain, but eventually repetitions of brain regions and their uses got a little boring, especially towards the end of the book and the last section on what is going wrong in dyslexic readers’ brains. The answer, (we don’t really know, though it seems to be either genetic or physical or something else, but either way scientists today are fairly sure it results in interesting re-wirings in the brain), can be summed up in a sentence or two, (see, I just did it in that last aside!), yet seemed to be repeated far too often, and in far too much depth.

Overall, however, a book on how we read was irresistible to a linguist like me, taking me back to my university days and leaving me with some fascinating insights into a topic I haven’t thought about for years: the fact that, although all humans are hard-wired for speech, reading and writing are something we are forced to learn, against our genes and our nature, every time a new person is brought into the world.

“…a businessman, fluent in Chinese and English, suffered a severe stroke…What was amazing to all at the time was that this patient, who had lost his ability to read Chinese, could still read English…”

Furthermore, Japanese readers use two different regions of the brain to read its two different scripts, kana and kanji.

“…children learning more regular alphabets, such as Greek and German, gain fluency and efficiency faster than children learning less regular alphabets, such as English…”

Socrates, the Father of Philosophy™, was bitterly opposed to written language, believing that only through the living, organic give-and-take of dialogue could people learn: alphabets were, for him, merely prisons for words and thoughts, where people would think that they understood ideas without ever having to truly comprehend them. In a world of 24-hour, wall-to-wall, internet-and-cable TV-fed information, this was one of the most thought-provoking ideas in the book.

“In a survey of three communities in Los Angeles, there were startling differences in how many books were available to children. In the most underprivileged community, no children’s’ books were found in the home; in the low-income to middle-income community there were, on average, three books; and in the affluent community there were around 200 books…”

Finally, as well as supplying me with new facts about languages and language learning, and a possible epithet for the entire blog, this book also supplied me with a warning quote which could go at the end of each blog entry: am I keeping these blogs as a way to save my favourite quotes, nuggets of knowledge and filleted facts,  and to share with people? Or am I just indulging my collector’s fetish of storing knowledge here, knowing I may never look at them again?

“‘[In] modern Guatemala…Mayans remark that outsiders note things down not in order to remember them, but rather so as not to remember them…” –Nicholas Ostler

1 Comment

Posted by on August 13, 2012 in BOOKS


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