Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf
I don’t recall how I first learned about Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, but I know that the reference included this quote:
As soon as an infant can sit on a caregiver’s lap, the child learns to associate the act of reading with a sense of being loved. (p. 82)
Any adult, whether a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or unrelated friend who has ever read to a small child understands that sentiment. So it was sentiment that first got me to start reading this book. Sentiment only took me so far; the details of the development of writing and the neuroscience of reading that fill most of the book soon proved too intimidating. I returned the book, unfinished, to the library.
The quote stuck in my head, however, as did the sense of disappointment at not finishing. So it was back to the library for an interlibrary loan of the only copy in our consortium. In the meantime I’d also become involved with an organization that advocates for evidence-based approaches to dyslexia, a form of neurodiversity in which the brain must learn to use different circuits to decode the letters on a printed page and make sense of them. Coincidentally, as I was finishing Proust and the Squid, I started reading Ordinary Grace, which features two characters who, in the time period in which the novel is set, were considered retarded or mentally defective because of the differences in the ways their brains worked.
Having finished reading on the second attempt, I can affirm that Proust and the Squid is a great read. Beginning with technologies that are tens of thousands of years old—knotted bits of rope, scratches in clay or stones or turtle shells—Wolf traces the history of written communication in the first section of the book through the development of alphabets. As humans moved from one technology to another, the human brain adapted to the changes and contrived new changes to make the process of passing on knowledge both easier and more robust. Alphabets in particular had the biggest impact on the brain’s ability to acquire and process information through written records.
The second section discusses the development of an individual’s ability to read. Here’s where the neuroscience can seem a bit dense, but a complete apprehension of the details is not required to follow the narrative arc. When a person reads, certain circuits in the brain are activated. With practice, the brain needs less energy and time to process, or decode, the information that the eyes encounter on the printed page or digital device. Wolf describes in enlightening detail that is timed in milliseconds what happens when a fluent reader sees a word, applies past experience and existing knowledge to it, and grasps the information that is being communicated in the current encounter.
This is where Proust comes in. According to Wolf, 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.” (p. 6) What a gift the ability to read fluently is.
Where does the squid come in? In the third section Wolf likens dyslexia to a young squid’s inability to swim fast. The squid is both predator and prey. In order to survive, a squid must be able to swim fast. “Scientists in the 1950s used the long central axon of the shy but cunning squid to understand how neurons fire and transmit to each other, and in some cases to see how neurons repair and compensate when something goes awry.” (p. 6) The young squid that can’t swim fast must compensate and develop different survival strategies and tactics, and those strategies and tactics must function automatically. This requires that the squid brain be reconfigured to compensate for the lack of ability to swim fast. (Wolf does not state this explicitly; I infer this.) The child with dyslexia must also compensate when the brain circuits that usually enable reading fail to function properly.
Wolf concludes the section on dyslexia by identifying numerous famous individuals who are said to have, or have had, dyslexia and who have accomplished much in spite of it. Children and adults who have dyslexia or any one of a number of differences are not defective or inferior, as was once thought. Like any science worthy of the name, neuroscience is constantly learning and adjusting its understanding of how to help people with dyslexia and other examples of neurodiversity thrive.
If, as I do, you have a family member or friend who has a form of neurodiversity like dyslexia, reading Proust and the Squid can help you understand that person’s strengths and challenges. It’s not a beach read; maybe wait until the evenings get a little cooler and start a little earlier and give yourself a few undistracted hours to learn how it is that you can process such marvelous writing.
Thank you for stopping by.