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Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science…

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007)

by Maryanne Wolf

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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“Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?"

In “Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf”

Why wouldn't Amazon publish the ebook I wrote in 1986 on a ZX81 and posted to them saved on a cassette tape? On the other hand, I once (1988, I think) did the work for a non-linear dynamics paper on my Sinclair Spectrum, and produced the diagrams using the Spectrum's printer, which used sparks to burn dots in the silver coating of the paper, then photographing and enlarging them. It was submitted to the very snooty college journal. They accepted it but wondered if I couldn't make better diagrams. They published anyway when I said I couldn't. How I wish I could recover this. It’s in one of the floppy disk in my attic at home…I’ve still got several programming nuggets I developed at the time. One of them was a chess compiler in C. If I had the hardware to read that kind of media (I’ve still got the floppy disks, but I no longer have the drive that went along with them…), I could recover most of them too if I really set my mind to it. But I wouldn't regard it as worth the effort, so they'll eventually get lost without anyone ever knowing whether they are worth saving. Only me…A lot of forensics software aims to keep old formats readable - so incompatibility is the least of our worries. Books last for hundreds, even thousands of years. Modern storage media do not. 'Bit rot' is going to become a serious problem...

That might be part of the reason we have books like these. Or because of the people they were written for.

Back in the day when I was attending The British Council, I treated myself years to a copy of the great Oxford English Dictionary, the full 20 volume version (I know what you’re thinking…; but this took place in the 80s). If I sat down to look up a word I could be there an hour later, reading the etymology of a completely unrelated word that I possibly didn't even know existed until that point. Because of that, I learnt to keep my discoveries to myself, on the whole, having seen the look of panic on other people's faces should I start with an enthusiastic recital of my discoveries. Whilst Wikipedia (and other online reference sources) do have a certain amount of serendipity, the joy of reading the next entry in a print encyclopaedia is hard to match. Ah, the joys of dictionary leafing! Also reminds me that, as a youngster, some of the encyclopaedia sets at home were one of my favourite things. Later on I bought the German equivalent. Oh, what joy! I must have clocked years looking up all sorts of wonders, tracing diagrams and designs and just having myself a proper party! Nevertheless, if I lose a book and it's gone, given a couple of minutes of WIFI and a mobile phone I can download any one of millions of books for free anywhere in the word, with paid-for Kindle type services. Plus, they're closing all the libraries, where is one supposed to go to get all this information and look things up? Especially if the required lookup is needed in the middle of the night for instance. Sadly, we're reaching a point where if it isn't on the net, somewhere, and indexed by a search engine, it may as well not exist. There is a sense of sensibility in this day and age for printed matter, but, as with the stone tablets Maryanne Wolf writes about (cuneiform, etc.), this will pass and soon. I think, in less than a generation (I probably won’t leave to see it), books will only be boutique gifts. There will come a time, possibly within the lifetime of you now reading this, when there will simply be no more books published. Novels, yes; collections of short stories; poems; plays; all manner of nonfiction--but it will all be electronic. Everything will be photonic, and when it is photonic and the cloud is a quantum entangled swarm of particles in orbit of the sun which powers that internet iteration, there will be legions whinging about the sad loss of electronics, and they will sound just as pathetic.

But the problem is not that we moved on from the printed page. What will be an utter disgrace is that no one will read Proust anymore. Proust's sort of fun if you have the time and uninterrupted stamina: if you let a day go by without keeping up the momentum it abruptly just turns into gossip about people you'll never meet. That can be diverting, on a long bus journey (because otherwise the yammering of the people behind you becomes irritating noise, whereas making sense of it is at least a good mental exercise). A bit of concentration and the books resolve into exactly what people claim, a Great Work about time, loss and our attempts to make sense of it all, but then life gets in the way and it turns back into eavesdropping on “fin de siècle” Parisian random stuff (loved the quite right at the beginning of the book). What I didn’t like is the fact Wolf seems to be writing a book without the “science” to support it. Starting the book with a quote by Proust was a good touch, but it’s bone-in meat without the meat… ( )
  antao | May 8, 2018 |
This book explores what the unnatural act of learning to read does to our brains, how that has affected human culture, and what is going on in the brains of people who have trouble putting together all the complicated cerebral processes of reading. Wolf's writing is accessible and her experience as a professor and a dyslexia researcher make her more than qualified to tell this story. The overview of the history of writing and reading over time and across cultures and the personal explorations of what reading means to an individual really hit home with me. I lost interest a bit in the (rather lengthy) sections on the brain and the physiological aspects of reading. The very end of the book raised the question of how reading on the internet and our phones may once again change our brains or shape the way we think, but Wolf pulls back from the implications of this idea and lands on something like "kids these days don't have a good attention span because of phones." I think that's a little too simple, and I wish the book had spent some of its anatomical real estate on current research into the impact of the Internet on the reading brain. ( )
  kristykay22 | Dec 20, 2017 |
Thoroughly satisfying. ( )
  Mithril | Jun 27, 2017 |
I have found it a very pleasant book to read. All three sections (already mentioned in other reviews) are very interesting and brought me many insight on a subject I did not know much about before. I have particularly liked the second section, the one connecting the act of reading with the developing and functioning of the brain.
I think it also brings important messages to parents who want their children to grow enjoying reading, living the act of reading as the wonderful and fulfilling activity we, as human, have been blessed with. ( )
  ferrarini_luca | Dec 6, 2016 |
Our brains are not designed for reading. So it may seem remarkable that over thousands of years we gradually developed symbols and the rules for manipulating them that constitute a written language. Despite the fact that reading is not a natural ability, we obviously must gain a huge advantage through being able to communicate through written text. And it turns out that our brains adapt to this situation, deploying multiple abilities that work in concert and improve their efficiency dramatically over time in order to fully exploit our environment of written language. It is a story, both evolutionary and socio-cultural, that borders on the unbelievable. Yet it doesn’t come to the fore until we encounter and have to deal with individuals whose brains have not developed along the lines that lead to reading efficiency. For the dyslexic, reading can be a gargantuan challenge.

Maryanne Wolf presents this story of reading from the perspective of a neuroscientist, but rooted both professionally and personally in working directly with people burdened with dyslexia. Of course that burden itself is culturally enforced. Since no brain is designed, as it were, for reading, it can hardly have been an evolutionary disadvantage (at least throughout most of history) to not develop this remarkable skill. And indeed the evidence suggests that many of those suffering from the stigma of dyslexia have brains that are better designed, in terms of their wiring, for artistic or conceptual work. And so the effort to understand precisely what is going on in the reading brain is both an effort to ease the path for those who do not quickly attain fluency and to acknowledge that there are a wealth of equally valuable other paths that a “successful” brain might take.

This was a fascinating account told with humility and grace. It contains enough of the neuroscience to fully inform even the most ardent scientific reader, but enough of the humane aspects of what reading is and means to keep the reader focussed on what really matters. Recommended. ( )
2 vote RandyMetcalfe | Jul 18, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Maryanne Wolfprimary authorall editionscalculated
Stoodley, Catherine J.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I dedicate this book to all the members of my family... past, present, and still to come.
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I have lived my life in the service of words: finding where they hide in the convoluted recesses of the brain, studying their layers of meaning and form, and teaching their secrets to the young.
"Words and music are the tracks of human evolution." —John S. Dunne
"Knowing how something originated often is the best clue to how it works." —Terrence Deacon
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060933844, Paperback)

"Human beings were never born to read," writes Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and child development expert Maryanne Wolf. Reading is a human invention that reflects how the brain rearranges itself to learn something new. In this ambitious, provocative book, Wolf chronicles the remarkable journey of the reading brain not only over the past five thousand years, since writing began, but also over the course of a single child's life, showing in the process why children with dyslexia have reading difficulties and singular gifts.

Lively, erudite, and rich with examples, Proust and the Squid asserts that the brain that examined the tiny clay tablets of the Sumerians was a very different brain from the one that is immersed in today's technology-driven literacy. The potential transformations in this changed reading brain, Wolf argues, have profound implications for every child and for the intellectual development of our species.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:45 -0400)

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A developmental psychologist evaluates the ways in which reading and writing have transformed the human brain, in an anecdotal study that reveals the significant changes in evolutionary brain physiology throughout history.

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