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Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Rachel Smucker

Between English- and Japanese-speakers, dyslexics and normal readers, struggling children and fluent adults, Wolf shows the not-so-obvious differences in both brain structure and in areas of activation.

Proust and the Squid

Publisher: HarperCollins
Subtitle: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
Author: Maryanne Wolf
Price: $29.95
Length: 308
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0060186399
US publication date: 2007-09

Reading about reading: meta-reading. It takes a strong lover of language to be able to handle the density of Maryanne Wolf's latest book, but the effort is fruitful. Surprisingly accessible (though heavily sprinkled with scientific jargon), Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain provides all the information of a linguistics class textbook while criss-crossing time, disciplines, and languages.

Especially geared towards readers with an interest in dyslexia, Wolf's book focuses a great deal on the structural and cognitive differences between the brains of dyslexics and those of normal readers. Not surprisingly, Wolf is quite an expert in this field, having degrees from both Harvard University (Ed.D.) and Northwestern University (M.A.) under her belt, as well as a 13 year-long directorship at Tufts University's Center for Reading and Language. She is currently a professor of child development at Tufts.

Proust and the Squid is the first of Wolf's truly global books, as others have been written for "scientist-only" audiences (Dyslexia, Fluency, and the Brain, 2001; Thought and Language -- Language and Reading, 1980; Rapid Automized Naming and Rapid Alternating Stimulus Tests: Examiner's Manual, 2005). In other words, don't expect the sort of "pop science" novels that have been sprouting up in recent years, such as The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. Wolf, whose reference section is nearly 60 pages long, would probably be insulted at such a comparison.

Though there are moments when Wolf slides back into her cognitive science roots -- such as the 10 page-long technical description of "the instantaneous fusion of cognitive, linguistic, and affective processes ... that are the sum of all that goes into reading" -- her book is, for the most part, quite enjoyable. Her prose is clear and coherent, which is a talent few scientifically-trained academians can claim to possess. She begins each chapter with a quote or two from a well-known source which, while not actually relevant to the following chapter, helps to loosen up the textbook-style stiffness her writing sometimes has.

As would be expected, Wolf has rather high expectations for her readers. Though none of her literary, musical, scientific, or artistic allusions are even close to obscure, their exact meanings may be a little fuzzy for some readers. (Had I not brushed up on my pre-Raphaelite art and 19th-Century Russian literature before reading Wolf's book, I might have missed a couple references.) But a little fuzziness is permitted, assuming the major point has been taken: that reading is an incredibly multidisciplinary practice.

But the word "multidisciplinary" hardly does Wolf's topic justice. In addition to her main argument that our brains were not designed for reading and writing (as they were for oral communication), she provides dozens of anecdotal and scientific examples to support her other discussions on words, sounds, and images. One striking example showed cross-sections of multiple brains and their differences in location of activation depending on what language the person spoke. Between English- and Japanese-speakers, dyslexics and normal readers, struggling children and fluent adults, Wolf shows the not-so-obvious differences in both brain structure and in areas of activation.

Perhaps this is not so surprising to those who have noticed the subtly creative ways in which dyslexics interpret symbols. Switching numbers and letters, inverting words, jumbling sentences -- though not appropriate for "normal" reading, Wolf points out that dyslexics tend to be rather creative people all around. Consider Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Leonardo DaVinci, three dyslexics whose talents were clearly more than ordinary, but who also help to prove Wolf's point: that dyslexics are sometimes more creative than normal readers.

She cites loads of anecdotal evidence which, as descriptive and convincing as we all want it to be, isn't quite sufficient for a book of this caliber. No worries -- several pages later are more cross-sections of brains, with evidence of clear differences in delay time between reading fluency in dyslexics and normal readers. Furthermore, Wolf cites recent research which has found structural differences between the two types of brains -- specifically, in the planum temporal region, which is normally asymmetrical in normal readers' brains, but has been found to be symmetrical in dyslexics, as a result of right hemisphere over-compensation.

Don't be scared by Wolf's heavy-handed use of science slang -- she concisely defines each obscure word, which you may use in the future to impress your friends ("She was so incomprehensible she might as well have been using an abecedary"). She also honestly -- and impressively -- admits to gaps in her knowledge, and instead asks readers all sorts of interesting rhetorical questions that makes us feel intellectually stimulated:

"Will this next generation's capacity to find insights, pleasure, pain, and wisdom in oral and written language be dramatically altered? Will their relationship to language be fundamentally changed? Will the present generation become so accustomed to immediate access to on-screen information that the range of attentional, inferential, and reflective capacities in the present reading brain will become less developed?"

It is a lot to think about, but isn't that the point? Wolf does more than her fair share of thought provocation in Proust and the Squid, whose only real flaw is its practically irrelevant and misleading title -- while Proust is mentioned several times throughout the book as an example of subjective reader interpretation, the squid is only mentioned twice. But I'll let that one slide.


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