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Review: Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf

proust and the squidGetting back into writing about books has proven more difficult than I expected. I have such a huge backlog that I wasn’t sure where to begin, which seems like a silly reason, but which did keep me from even trying earlier this week. Today, though, I finished Proust and the Squid, which was such an excellent book that I was immediately inspired to write something about it.

This book is all about reading and its development, both in history and in a child’s (or adult’s) brain. Wolf, who is a well-known authority on the subject, decodes what to many adults now seems straightforward and obvious; the many factors that go into the surprisingly magical ability to read. Reading is not a natural human activity, like communicating seems to be, but is something that has been developed over time and which actually shapes our brains.

So many elements of this book fascinated me. The difference between a native-English-speaking brain and a native-Chinese-speaking brain, for one, because Chinese characters contain pictorial elements which require different levels of processing. I had no real idea that there were so many elements involved in reading or how it worked. Naturally, I was also transfixed by the passages about the history of the development of our alphabet, which revolutionized reading, as we can understand it so quickly that we can think more widely while reading. The alphabet also opened reading up to more people as it became “easier” to learn.

What I found most interesting, though, were the parts about how children learn to read. Reading, for me, has always been easy. I was lucky when I was little. My parents read to me every night and taught me letters, colors, recognition and naming of everything around me – basically, everything this book says is key to a successful reading life. I never had to be taught how to read in school because it all clicked into place for me before I got there. Other children are not that lucky, and Wolf devotes a large portion of the book to children with reading disabilities, primarily dyslexia, and how this relates back to the many processes involved in reading. She makes a strong argument for dyslexic children and adults being “gifted” and more creative with several prominent examples from history, which is undoubtedly something that these children need to hear more often. I know many children and adults have frustrating experiences with reading difficulties.

Finally, Wolf questions how much internet culture will impact reading. We all read information online, but we’re not encouraged to read deeply and think widely; when all information is available via Wikipedia, what happens to specialist knowledge, understanding, and a framework for understanding? She’s not sure.

I loved, though, how much Wolf is a reader, who understands the way that books change and shape who we are. Each quote at the start of each chapter was thoughtfully and perfectly chosen. It’s very clear that she loves reading. At times it felt like the book was speaking directly to me and the experiences I’ve had, and it underscores how very valuable it is to encourage us to think outside ourselves and step into others’ shoes, something that is inherent in reading.

Proust and the Squid is absolutely worth reading by anyone who loves reading or is raising children. I have a feeling I’ll refer back to it again and again.

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