Book Review: Proust and the Squid Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf 2007, HarperCollins, New York, 306 pgs. $15, ISBN: 978-0-06-093384-5
We were never born to read.
The provocative premise begins author Maryanne Wolf's excavation into the art and mystery of the literate brain. A professor of child development at Tuft's University and director for the Center for Reading and Language Research, Wolf's expertise is evident in her multifaceted exploration of reading development. By all accounts, the refinement of human literacy represents for Wolf an "unnatural" process, but one which our innate biological circuitry has been primed to undertake. Proust begins with a chronology of reading acquisition, moving then to a discussion of individual reading development. The book concludes with discussion dedicated to the enigma of dyslexia, its biological roots and the unexpected gifts that come with such neural diversity.
Less an interventionist's manual, Proust incorporates historical, literary and neuro-scientific evidence to form a rich ethnography of reading. The title itself pays metaphoric homage to both French novelist Marcel Proust and the common squid whose anatomic structure propelled scientific research during the 1950s. Using this juxtaposition of characters and contributions, Wolf alludes to the book's underlying premise: that while decoding text is fundamentally a biological process - a symphonic exchange of neuronal energy - reading amounts to something far more dynamic.
Text greater than the sum of its characters
One of the earliest, and most reiterated points Proust, is the active adaptation required of our underlying neurological structure for reading acquisition. There are no reading genes, no "blueprint" as Wolf it, by which reading is genetically imprinted on later generations. This necessity of neural rewiring separates reading from processes such as vision or hearing fall on a fixed developmental trajectory. Wolf cites the work of Stanislas Dehaene, a French neuroscientist, who worked to explain the advancement of reading ability as an adaptive specialization within our visual system. our earliest ancestors, being able to recognize subtle patterns among animal prints or vegetation determine survival. With more frequent exposure to natural patterns came a greater automaticity in and, perhaps, the earliest forms of "reading" fluency.
Proust traces the development of reading through distinct historical periods. Some of the earliest examples of written record are a remarkable variety of clay tokens, likely used for accounting purposes, thought to have been created between 8000 and 4000 BCE. Wolf cites this type of graphic representation as revolutionary because it both created a lasting form of communication as well as imbued an otherwise benign symbol with meaning. The ability of ancient ancestors to differentiate various symbolic representations from one another and to connect those graphic abstractions to tangible objects, marks one of the most significant periods in the neurological evolution of our reading brain.
Wolf describes a number of early writing systems, including the Sumerian "cuneiform," the pictographic and syllabic Akkadain language, the Egyptian hieroglyph, the Grecian alphabet, and their corresponding contributions to reading acquisition. She delves deeply into a comparison of alphabetic languages (e.g., English) and symbolic languages (e.g., Chinese) and the unique influence of each to brain development and neural specialization. While imagining research supports different cortical areas involved in processing alphabetic versus symbolic presentations, three primary regions (the frontal, temporal-parietal and occipital lobes) function as a system common across readers of any language. Thus, Wolf concludes, the brain's plasticity allows it to adapt to the demands of any visual presentation with equal efficiency.
Proust moves to further explore the anatomical adaptations made to accommodate for reading development. …