Sunday, March 18, 2012

Proust and the Squid

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain. London: Icon Books, 2008.

Wolf provides a brief history of the shift from oral culture to written culture and traces the development of written language and reading. She explains the evidence supporting the adaptability of the human brain, how it has changed to enable reading, and how it differs for different writing systems, for instance, the different parts of the brain used for Chinese characters or Japanese kanji, for alphabets, and for syllabaries. Wolf also shows how complex and advanced the reading process is, pointing out that we expect children to learn in 2000 days, something that took 2000 years to develop. Because Wolf is a reading specialist, she also describes successful systems for teaching reading both to new readers and to readers who have fallen behind or have difficulty with the reading process. Wolf also devotes a section of the book to dyslexia and its varieties; the history of those with dyslexia, who often turn out to be among the more creative members of society.

In answer to Socrates' concern over the loss of memory and the over-reliance on and faith in words frozen in an unfixed form to the page, Wolf shows that the the shift to writing and reading freed the brain up for deeper and more critical thought.

Wolf considers how the brain will continue to adapt as our habits of reading change to focus on the shorter bits of information often turned to on the Web and the disruption of attention and focus through multitasking that often accompanies work on the computer as readers shift from the printed page to the screen. Wolf writes, "Ultimately, the questions Socrates raised for Athenian youth apply equally to our own. Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself?" and she asks,  "[W]hat would be lost to us if we replaced the skills honed by the reading brain with those now being formed in our new generation of 'digital natives,' who sit and read transfixed before a screen?" (221).

She concludes that, "In the transmission of knowledge the children and teachers of the future should not be faced with a choice between books and screens, between newspapers and capsuled versions of the news on the Internet, or between print and other media. Our transition generation has an opportunity, if we seize it, to pursue and use our most reflective capacities, to use everything at our disposal to prepare for the formation of what will come next. ....Many of our children code-switch between two or more oral languages, and we can teach them also to switch between different presentations of written language and different modes of analysis" (229).

An interesting book with much to consider for readers, teachers of reading, librarians and other professionals working with and helping to develop readers, and lastly,  but in no way least, parents who will be raising readers.  

1 comment:

Walt Giersbach said...

Wolf's thesis is interesting, impressive, challenging and ... frightening. Wish I had time to stop and read it now because I'm worried about brains wiring up new synapses in response to endless iPadding and screen squinting. Now, gotta run to finish writing a story about a man who begins disappearing into books as life passes by.