Proust and the squid

The current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine includes a review of Maryanne Wolf ‘s new book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Professor Bradley L. Schlaggar, M.D., Ph.D., of the Washington University School of Medicine briefly comments on Professor Wolf’s book and raises a particularly important point.

Professor Wolf is a widely known cognitive neuroscientist and scholar who has studied reading and dyslexia extensively. In her book, she traces the relatively recent history of reading—alphabets are only about 5000 years old, so reading can be no older—and argues that the phylogenic development of reading has changed the human brain. Using contemporary research about dyslexia, she explains what happens in learners’ brains when they have difficulty with the fundamental decoding of print.

Dr. Schlaggar’s review recounts some of these features of Professor Wolf’s book. He also challenges a couple of points in the book. One is a seemingly contradictory idea Professor Wolf presents and the other is the omission of a idea that loyal readers will recognize as a theme of LD Blog.

One puzzling theme in the book involves the story that Socrates expressed tremendous reticence with regard to communication of thought via reading and writing. He believed, we are told, that reading and writing would denigrate the intellect. Wolf simultaneously presents a clear argument for why Socrates was wrong — that the written word has facilitated intellectual development in a literate society — and an opinion that his perspective ought to be heeded as we delve deeper into the era of digital information. This theme is puzzling because the Internet is, in this context, another cultural invention. Great opportunities await us in the digital age, including access to a larger number of virtual texts than any single physical library could contain. Is there peril in the enormity and simultaneity of information, as Wolf suggests? Perhaps, but the same arguments regarding the remarkable capacity of our brains to take on the formidable task of learning to read apply here.

One topic that deserved attention but did not receive it in this otherwise impressively complete account is the importance of identifying evidence-based interventions for reading impairment. Few dyslexia remediation products are in existence today, and those that are available show uneven efficacy when they are tested rigorously. The growing scientific literature on reading, described so effectively in this book, suggests that there should be better ways to treat the disorder, and Wolf’s thoughts on this topic would have rounded out the discussion.

I admire Professor Wolf’s scholarship. I’m very glad that Dr. Schlagger raised the concern about evidence-based reading instruction; it’s a key one in my view. Anyone who has read Proust and the Squid should drop a comment about it or about Dr. Schlagger’s review (or both) or about my biases about reading, for that matter.

Link to first 100 words of Dr. Schlagger’s review. (If you’re a subscriber or browsing from an IP address within the range of a subscribing institution, you can get the full text.)

Wolf, M. M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper.

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