Interweaving her vast knowledge of neurology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy with fascinating down-to-earth examples and lively personal anecdotes, developmental psychologist, neuroscientist, and dyslexia expert Wolf probes the question, "How do we learn to read and write?" This ambitious and provocative new book offers an impassioned look at reading, its effect on our lives, and explains why it matters so greatly in a digital era.
Reading Lessons From Proust and the Squid
I believe that reading, in its original essence, [is] that fruitful
miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude. —Marcel
Learning involves the nurturing of nature. —Joseph LeDoux
We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few
thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very
organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able
to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.
Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the
ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors'
invention could come about only because of the human brain's
extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing
structures, a process made possible by the brain's ability to be shaped
by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain's design forms
the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become.
This book tells the story of the reading brain, in the context of our
unfolding intellectual evolution. That story is changing before our eyes
and under the tips of our fingers. The next few decades will witness
transformations in our ability to communicate, as we recruit new
connections in the brain that will propel our intellectual development
in new and different ways. Knowing what reading demands of our brain and
knowing how it contributes to our capacity to think, to feel, to infer,
and to understand other human beings is especially important today as we
make the transition from a reading brain to an increasingly digital one.
By coming to understand how reading evolved historically, how it is
acquired by a child, and how it restructured its biological
underpinnings in the brain, we can shed new light on our wondrous
complexity as a literate species. This places in sharp relief what may
happen next in the evolution of human intelligence, and the choices we
might face in shaping that future.
This book consists of three areas of knowledge: the early history of how
our species learned to read, from the time of the Sumerians to Socrates;
the developmental life cycle of humans as they learn to read in ever
more sophisticated ways over time; and the story and science of what
happens when the brain can't learn to read. Taken together, this
cumulative knowledge about reading both celebrates the vastness of our
accomplishment as the species that reads, records, and goes beyond what
went before, and directs our attention to what is important to preserve.
There is something less obvious that this historical and evolutionary
view of the reading brain gives us. It provides a very old and very new
approach to how we teach the most essential aspects of the reading
process—both for those whose brains are poised to acquire it and
for those whose brains have systems that may be organized differently,
as in the reading disability known as dyslexia. Understanding these
unique hardwired systems—which are preprogrammed generation after
generation by instructions from our genes—advances our knowledge
in unexpected ways that have implications we are only beginning to
Interwoven through the book's three parts is a particular view of how
the brain learns anything new. There are few more powerful mirrors of
the human brain's astonishing ability to rearrange itself to learn a new
intellectual function than the act of reading. Underlying the brain's
ability to learn reading lies its protean capacity to make new
connections among structures and circuits originally devoted to other
more basic brain processes that have enjoyed a longer existence in human
evolution, such as vision and spoken language. We now know that groups
of neurons create new connections and pathways among themselves every
time we acquire a new skill. Computer scientists use the term "open
architecture" to describe a system that is versatile enough to
change—or rearrange—to accommodate the varying demands on
it. Within the constraints of our genetic legacy, our brain presents a
beautiful example of open architecture. Thanks to this design, we come
into the world programmed with the capacity to change what is given to
us by nature, so that we can go beyond it. We are, it would seem from
the start, genetically poised for breakthroughs.
Thus the reading brain is part of highly successful two-way dynamics.
Reading can be learned only because of the brain's plastic design, and
when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both
physiologically and intellectually. For example, at the neuronal level,
a person who learns to read in Chinese uses a very particular set of
neuronal connections that differ in significant ways from the pathways
used in reading English. When Chinese readers first try to read in
English, their brains attempt to use Chinese-based neuronal pathways.
The act of learning to read Chinese characters has literally shaped the
Chinese reading brain. Similarly, much of how we think and what we think
about is based on insights and associations generated from what we read.
As the author Joseph Epstein put it, "A biography of any literary person
ought to deal at length with what he read and when, for in some sense,
we are what we read."
These two dimensions of the reading brain's development and
evolution—the personal-intellectual and the biological—are
rarely described together, but there are critical and wonderful lessons
to be discovered in doing just that. In this book I use the celebrated
French novelist Marcel Proust as metaphor and the largely
underappreciated squid as analogy for two very different aspects of
reading. Proust saw reading as a kind of intellectual "sanctuary," where
human beings have access to thousands of different realities they might
never encounter or understand otherwise. Each of these new realities is
capable of transforming readers' intellectual lives without ever
requiring them to leave the comfort of their armchairs.
Scientists in the 1950s used the long central axon of the shy but
cunning squid to . . .
Excerpted from "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain" by Maryanne Wolf. Copyright © 0 by Maryanne Wolf. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.