Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf ended up having quite a few page markers in it by the time I finished. When two of my favorite subjects come together – reading and neuroscience – it’s like a book written just for me. It started off a little rocky though. Wolf’s introduction zoomed all over the place and I had a difficult time keeping up with her. Blessedly, once she got going, the book turned into exactly what I had hoped.
Our brains are genetically programmed for language but, I found out, our brains are not “born to read.” Our brains are so incredibly amazing and this book points out how amazing they are. When we learn to read we actually change our brain’s structure and connections, so much so that “you are what you read,” is almost quite literally true. Our reading brain begins developing from the oldest parts of our brain, the part that recognizes shapes and patterns. From there it begins to make connections between the sounds we hear and the shapes and patterns on the page. Pretty soon we turn into little code breakers as we learn how to translate the letters on the page into words. More areas of our brain get involved and, once we have reached the stage of expert reader, our brains practically light up like a Christmas tree as we engage the various parts to recognize pattern and language and thinking and emotion.
Because of the way the brain develops, most of us can’t learn to read until we are five or six. A good many parents out there trying to get their kids to read early are disappointed. Before we can read the myelin covering the axons in our brain cells must be fully in place and that doesn’t generally occur until we are five or six. Many of you are probably thinking that you were reading sooner than that. I checked with my Mom and she said I was a competent reader before I was five. Wolf doesn’t talk about those of us who were able to read early, but I suspect we were able to do it for a number of reasons, one of which includes a brain that developed just a little earlier than the other kids’.
The environment in which all children develop has a huge impact on whether or not they become good at reading. Children who are good readers were frequently read to by adults. They were also talked to and encouraged to talk. By the time they got to kindergarten they had a good sized vocabulary. Learning to read is faster and easier if you already know the word you are reading on the page.
I don’t remember the moment I learned how to read but I remember being read to by my parents, my grandparents, my babysitter, aunts and uncles. And talking. My family had dinner together every night. Gatherings with other parts of the family always meant the grown-ups sitting around and talking and they would talk to the kids too and ask us questions. And they’d tell us stories. All these things, my whole family, contributed to me becoming a good reader.
The really cool thing is that the more we read, the more we change our brains. It’s a loop of sorts; the more we read the more the brain changes and that allows us to read more and more difficult material that further changes the brain. Even when we reach the expert reader stage we continue to change our brains by adding more vocabulary, information and associations. Apparently every word has an entire network of meanings and associations built up around it. When you read the word “bear” for instance, your brain finds all of the meanings of the word and then uses the context in which the word appears to determine its final meaning. So when you read “The bear ran into the woods” your brain instantly calls up all the meanings of “bear” and then decides it is the animal and then the animal bear network in your brain lights up pulling in all the associations and things you know about bears. This happens within milliseconds.
I could go on and on about all the things I learned in the book. Wolf writes quite a bit about the development of writing and alphabets and how brilliant the Greeks were when they deliberately created an alphabet based on phonetics. Then there is the fascinating work being done on dyslexia and the way a dyslexic brain reads versus a “normal” brain. Wolf also takes the reader on a millisecond by millisecond guided tour of what happens in the brain when you read.
Neither Proust nor squids have much to do with the book, Wolf uses them as examples a few times and it makes an interesting title. If you want to know how we learn to read and what happens in our brains when we do, this book will tell you all you want to know. Even better, once you make if past that first chapter, it is well-written and gives your reading brain a good deal to think about.