Proust and the Squid

Article excerpt

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. By six months, a child's visual system is functioning fully and paired with growing attentional and conceptual capacities. Naming objects and oral language development (phonological, semantic and morphological understanding) then mature followed by print awareness and the recognition of what Wolf deems the "invariant patterns" of letters. This development of one-to-one correspondence between the letter name and its visual representation is a critical component to reading acquisition and fluency.

Considering the sequential course of reading acquisition, Wolf approaches the question of when children should learn to read. Delving beneath the cultural caveats and social stigmas, she reduces her answer down to a question of biological readiness. For each of the cortical areas involved in reading to fully process printed stimuli, a significant degree of coordination is required. That coordination necessitates the areas of the brain involved in reading be able to communicate efficiently. To this point, Wolf cites the research of Norman Geschwind and his work with the myelination of neurons. The more myelinated a neuron, the more efficient it is in synthesizing and sending messages. Geschwind's research found that neurons are not sufficiently myelinated for optimal cortical efficiency until between the ages of five to seven, and later in boys than in girls (Geschwind, 1965). Using these findings and other biological evidence as a base, Wolf describes artificially accelerating reading development as "potentially counterproductive" (p. 96).

However, despite the necessity of biological readiness for reading, Wolf far from negates the importance of early and continuous exposure to language. She cites extensive research highlighting environmental factors contributing to literacy. One of the best predictors of later reading skill is the amount of time being read to as a child. Its roots in infancy, those initial associations between being read to and the sense of security derived from being in close proximity to familiar others are acutely influential. Wolf also stresses, as a variable predictive of reading acquisition, the importance of environments rich in language. Research from Risley and Hart (2003) found that 32 million fewer words are spoken to children from a "language impoverished" environment by the age of five when compared to the average number of words spoken to children by that age- a deficit that can significantly influence reading comprehension As children develop stronger associations with the language of books, they are exposed to perspective taking, various forms of literary devices and invitations to practice making inferences and drawing conclusions. Such exposure helps children develop their own communicative style as they move through widening circles of interpersonal interaction all before they may be able to read themselves independently.

Wolf concludes Proust with a chapter dedicated to individuals whose unique neurology prevents them from attaining reading fluency through traditional channels. The study of dyslexia, as Wolf describes it, is "intrinsically messy" due to how much of the brain is involved in reading and how many different areas of science have proposed theories on the cause. She outlines four primary principles (or hypotheses) to guide the reader in their understanding of a brain affected by reading challenges. From weaknesses within-specific brain structures to processing inefficiency to connectivity failures between cortical areas, Wolf provides extensive research, as well as illustrations embedded within the text, to assist readers with the complexities associated with understanding the phenomena of dyslexia.

Wolfs concluding comments on the "gifts of dyslexia" represent some of Proust 's most thoughtprovoking reading. She blends together both research and anecdotal accounts of individuals with reading difficulties and the extraordinary talents they carry forward. Using dyslexia as proof, Wolf returns to her original premise - that we, as humans, were never meant to read. The brain, when organized otherwise, creates circuits that lend themselves to the fantastic, the ingenious and the sublime, and that these alterations represent neurological differences far from deficiencies.

Some readers may be disappointed that despite Wolf's extensive enumeration on the potential causes of dyslexia, she does not provide corresponding prescriptives for action. It would have made for a stimulating exploration if Wolf had chosen to view interventions using the same biological lens as the trajectory of traditional reading development. Do effective interventions actually change the efficiency or structural relationships within our brain? Inclusive of this absence, Proust communicates a rich context that helps us understand reading as both an activity of the brain and a cultural phenomenon. For research on reading interventions, readers are encouraged to explore Understanding, Assessing and Intervening on Reading Problems by Laurice Joseph (1996).

A process more than 77,000 years in the making deserves a chronology like Proust. Wolf helps those who take the journey through reading's travelogue fully appreciate the remarkable nature of this evolutionary gift.


"It took our species roughly 2,000 years to make the cognitive breakthroughs necessary to read with an alphabet, today our children have to reach those same insights about print in roughly 2,000 days."



Geschwind, N. (1965) Disconnection Syndrome in animals and man (parts 1 and 2). Brain, 88, 237-294.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (2003). The early catastrophe. American Educator, 27(4), 6-9

Joseph, L. (2006). Understanding, Assessing and Intervening on Reading Problems. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the Squid. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

[Author Affiliation]

Reviewed by Stephanie Domzalski, M.A., NCSP

[Author Affiliation]

Stephanie Domzalski, M.A., NCSP, is Licensed Educational Psychologist and a current doctoral student at Chapman University. Her primary research interests include the nature of expertise and development of professional competency. She can be reached at


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