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Proust and the Squid 04/17/11

cover art

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf is a tricky book to review. It's a book I wanted to read it since it came out. I can't even remember where I first heard about it. Given its topic, the biology behind human reading, I probably heard about it on NPR or somewhere similar. Not a month after reading it off my wishlist, per my on-going reading resolution, I had to re-read it for my course on materials for children ages 5 to 8.

Maryanne Wolf is the Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. Her other books have been aimed at the science community but Proust and the Squid is a more generalized book has sixty pages of endnotes but no inline citations nor footnotes. While these missing citations do make the text flow more like a novel, I would prefer to have them so I can more easily decide if I want to read further on subjects or points made in the book.

The central thesis is that reading is not natural. There hasn't been enough time for reading to have evolved as something hardwired into the brain. Yet, for people who find reading easy, take the complex mechanism behind the miracle for granted.

I can remember some aha moments in the early days of learning to read, like the time I asked what why there was an apostrophe in "o'clock" and learned that it really meant "of the clock." The fact that my own language could have these lazy moments built into it that we were some how just supposed to know, both fascinated and enraged me. I felt like things were rigged!

Another interesting observation about reading is the difference in brain activity between morpheme based languages (such as English) and logosyllabary (such as Chinese). They apparently activate different pieces of the brain and hybrid languages, like Japanese use both regions as needed. This part caught my attention as my children are both learning Chinese in school.

The book is best when it sticks to the science of reading. Every so often, especially early on in the book, Wolf waxes poetic about her own love of reading or what I as a reader is experiencing while reading the passages she has selected in her book. These parts while they set up the backdrop for the research can be skimmed or skipped (unless you are also reading the book for school).

Four stars.

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