Books : reviews

Maryanne Wolf.
Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain.
Icon. 2008

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 28 April 2009

We are wired for language, but we have to wire ourselves for reading, and it sometimes goes wrong. This intriguing account describes how over a period of several millennia we as a culture invented reading (the ability to look at somewhat arbitrary marks on paper, and turn them into meanings in our head, so fluently that we can also think about those meanings as we read); how we as individuals recapitulate that process in the first decade of our lives; and how it goes wrong in some people.

Some of the history (going from marks for accounting, via pictures representing concepts, to syllabaries and alphabets representing the sounds of the words) I had come across before. But here the emphasis is on the conceptual leaps required to go from one stage to the next, particularly the rather difficult abstractions required to think of a word in terms of its constituent sounds (we might think it is quite easy, but that's because we are literate, and that's the point). This background is then used in the section on learning to read, as the individual brain has to recapitulate those conceptual abstractions, albeit with help from teachers. What I got from this is just how complicated the process of learning to read is: it's easy to forget from a position where it is impossible to look at text and not read it, just how many steps there are in that process, and just how many places things can go wrong, from well-meaning but ill-informed interventions, to differences in the brain. It also demonstrates just how complicated the process of reading is, once it has been learned: it uses a huge proportion of the entire brain: visual, linguistic, semantic, emotional, and even (in the case of Chinese at least, where the learning process involves writing out characters over and over again) motor control.

The process of learning anything changes the brain to some degree: learning to read changes it substantially, as pathways form and strengthen as fluency is achieved. In some people, however, the usual pathways do not form. Even if they learn to read, they end up using different, slower, pathways, and so may not achieve that "fluency" that allows simultaneous thinking about the reading. Wolf makes an argument that reading exposes us to an enormously increased syntactic and semantic world, and not reading impoverishes us immensely. This is a feedback process, where initial impoverishment affects the ability to learn to read (as there is not enough phonemic and linguistic data for the child to readily make the necessary conceptual abstractions), which can lead to a vicious circle. But even if such initial impoverishment is not the case, some people's brains are just wired differently, and they don't make the speedy connections needed for fluent reading.

One thing that struck me on reading this (and thinking about it as I was reading!) is the emphasis on reading fiction. Part of Wolf's argument is that these imagined worlds enable the reader (here the child) to have a broader range of experiences than they could possibly get in real life, and in particular, to experience things from another's point of view, thereby nurturing their empathic abilities. All very true: like Pete McCutchen, I have spent many a happy hour battling hideous creatures beneath the hurtling moons of Barsoom, and going on covert missions inside the city of the alien beings who hold humanity in thrall, experiences I probably (indeed, even hopefully!) will never have in real life. But what about reading non-fiction? It is barely mentioned in passing, and yet that is what really expands the mind, going places I could never go, even in the wildest SF (except maybe in some Greg Egan stories). Kasner and Newman's Mathematics and the Imagination affected me profoundly, as did Kaufmann's Investigations (I swear I could feel my brain rewiring itself while I was reading that), and a whole host of books in between. Even this one has changed the way I think.

Wolf ends up worrying about what we might lose moving to a post-literate, Web-based generation, who don't achieve the fluency, and have only a superficial understanding of things. She does admit that Socrates had exactly the same worries about moving to a literate (as opposed to a memory-based) society. I am optimistic: we will probably lose something, but (like the way that pre-literate prodigious feats of memory allowing the carrying of a few books-worth of information in our very heads has given way to the availability of orders of magnitude more information available in libraries), we can gain so much more. And my optimism is based on all that non-fiction being even more available for mind-expansion (for example, no longer only static print, but now animations and calculation engines allowing immersive exploration of the dynamic consequences).