Proust and the Squid : The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Paperback

Proust and the Squid : The Story and Science of the Reading Brain Paperback

3.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


'We were never born to read', says Maryanne Wolf. 'No specific genes ever dictated reading's development.

Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we changed the very organisation of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.' In "Proust and the Squid", Maryanne Wolf explores our brains' near-miraculous ability to arrange and re-arrange themselves in response to external circumstances.

She examines how this 'open architecture', the elasticity of our brains, helps and hinders humans in their attempts to learn to read, and to process the written language.

She also investigates what happens to people whose brains make it difficult to acquire these skills, such as those with dyslexia.Wolf, a world expert on the reading brain, brings both a personal passion and deft style to this, the story of the reading brain.

It is a pop science masterpiece on a subject that anyone who loves reading will be sure to find fascinating.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320 pages, Illustrations
  • Publisher: Icon Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Literacy
  • ISBN: 9781848310308



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Review by

What an incredible book. Supremely readable, it seems undignified to label this 'popular science', because the amount of references show clearly that this has been as thoroughly researched as any serious scientific book. The only thing, really, that puts it into the popular category is the lack of note markers in the text - which is nice, until you get to the notes and realise how hard it is to relate them back... a very minor gripe.Maryanne Wolf's title alludes to the different aspects of reading exemplified by Proust's description of the book, in 'On Reading', as a place to take refuge and explore other realities and ideas, and the part the squid has played in the historical study of the brain. If you like, it's the felt experience of the reader complemented by the mechanics behind the scenes. The book is divided into three main parts: how the brain learned to read - a retrospective of the history of reading and brain science; how the brain learns to read over time - what we know or believe now about reading acquisition; and when the brain can't learn to read - a survey of current research and developments in dyslexia.Wolf's style is delightful. Even when she is explaining the complexities of brain imaging and how that might relate to reading development, she is never less than fluid (though I suspect I fell into the trap that, she tells us, Socrates feared would arise through literacy: that of ceasing to question, and reading without truly understanding!). It's not the kind of book where you find yourself so bogged down in the technical descriptions you are unable to move forward. The science is leavened with anecdotes from her own research and family life, and seasoned with numerous interesting literary and historical references (personal favourite: Eliot's analogies for Casaubon's mind from Middlemarch).Wolf closes with a call to arms to urgently consider the implications for the current generation of schoolchildren of 'growing up digital', repeatedly worrying at the notion that the ease of access to information provided by the internet may produce a crop of children with little or no curiosity about exploring texts further than their surfaces.I found this completely fascinating from just about every perspective: the history of reading, writing and alphabets, which I knew very little about; the process of language acquisition, which was particularly interesting as my youngest child is at the stage of beginning to reliably recognise letters; dyslexia, which I knew absolutely nothing about (nice too that Wolf uses The Lightning Thief for an epigraph in one of these chapters); and her personal mission statement in the final chapter. Everyone with an interest in reading should seek it out.

Review by

This book is in three parts:1) How the brain learned to read2) How the brain learns to read over time3) When the brain can't learn to readThe first part focuses on the earliest forms of writing, and what neurological developments occurred as a result of using symbols. The author manages to keep this combination of history and neuroscience just a little too dry to engage the layreader. The second part deals with the child's mind and what leaps of association are required to progress, as reading is an acquired skill as opposed to an innate ability. It was the reason I bought the book, hoping to get a wider understanding of the process of learning to read and some tips and techniques of improving this process. Unfortunately the text remains partly a scientific explanation of what happens in the brain (which lobes are exercised in which circumstances) and partly a linguistic explanation of versatility of the English language and how different words are pronounced differently (bough, tough, through etc.). As a native English speaker, I already knew that and have long since ceased to be amazed by it.There is no mention of the Glen Doman theory of learning to read, which is in opposition to the standard process presented here