Monday, March 09, 2009


“Proust and the Squid” has gotta be a high-end book -- you can tell from the title. If there was ever a high-end author, it’s gotta be Proust. And what do ordinary people know from “squid” unless they eat calamari? This is one of those trendy Something-and-Something titles that are supposed to make you curious. But it is a justified title. Ironically, the copy I bought is cheap paper, rough cover, physically about fit to wrap a squid.

The content is revolutionary, just as promised in the several reviews and radio interviews that attracted me to the book in the first place. It’s in three parts: a history of how humans learned to read; what happens in the brain when an individual reads; and what these ideas mean for people who can’t or don’t read. This is not about literacy and Harold Bloom’s list of must-read prestige books. This is not about cultural collapse and how we’re all doomed if schools don’t do a better job. This is about the phenomenon of reading itself.

The first “book” was a little clay pocket like pita bread that contained some dime-sized tokens like game markers. Each shape meant a unit of a commodity (sheep, wheat, oil, wine) and the pocket was supposed to hold the equivalent of a shipment: it was an invoice. The idea was very simple: this token means this real thing ought to be there. Then someone figured out it was easier to just “write” the tokens onto wet clay. Gradually that elaborated out into systems and conventions of business.

One day SHAZAM !! someone realized that it would be possible to symbolize spoken words. This happened in several places and in two main ways. One was to draw a little token for each word: this is the system Chinese follows. They call the tokens ideograms.

The other system was to symbolize the sounds of the words with “letters” that each stood for a sound. All the rest is alphabet. The “trick” of doing it depended on three things: the ability to hear the individual sounds of the consonants and vowels that made up words; the ability to associate each sound with a letter of the alphabet; then to juggle the recognition of the ensuing words into their meanings and what the sequence of words actually means in terms of ideas and reality.

Socrates was adamantly opposed to this. He felt that written language would be such a “prop,” such a “cheater,” such a Google, that real understanding would be totally undermined. The hard-won skills of discussion and thinking on one’s feet would be lost. He was probably right. But on the other hand, there was a gain that Maryanne Wolf, the author of this book, feels was world-shaking, because it enabled much slower, more thorough, broader and more in-depth ideas. (I felt this was the shakiest part of the book, asserted more than demonstrated.)

This jugglers’ trick with words, “writing,” was not easy to learn and only the elite or even the “set-aside” members of the elite (like the religious) ever got really good at it in those days. When the fMRI crowd got to investigating the brain functions necessary, they discovered why. Reading and writing are not done in a certain “part” of the brain but rather requires the participation of several parts and is dependent on the connections among them. Not only that, but culture and individual experience “build” brains (and constantly rebuild them) according to what they need to do in their unique worlds. A yak herder in Mongolia has a brain that is thick and thin in different places than a Jewish kid in Brooklyn. People who read ideogramic writing have different brains from people who read alphabet writing. All people have different brains, though most have the same parts. They just learn to use them differently and store different information in them, acquiring slightly different skills.

Some people are are “a-lexic.” They cannot learn to read and write. Something is missing. A higher proportion are “dys-lexic,” either learning with difficulty or learning in their own way. Some will be very gifted in other ways than reading, because they just happen to be thickly connected in other ways. Not all dyslexics are gifted. Some of this seems to be related to the left-brain/right-brain allocation of functions.

But reading is not just dependent on brain structures. You can’t learn to read if there’s nothing to read. If the culture is limited in the subject matter they talk about, it will be hard to read about things that are never seen or discussed. In a family that never sits with the children, reading out loud to them, maybe following the words with a pointing finger, gives the child few clues about what’s going on.

So to successfully read, a human being needs the proper brain parts, needs to learn to make them interact properly to decode spoken sounds, needs examples of people translating the marks on the page or screen into spoken language, needs a family that values reading and keeps written material at hand, and needs motivation to read: to be hooked.

I’ve tried to read Proust. I wasn’t hooked. I’m aware that it’s a marker of education and so on. I’m still not sure I understand the concept of “modernity” of which Proust is a part. I think it’s about investigating the nature of memory and reconstituting it in a kind of dream or spell of story in written language. So that means it’s about being able to share one’s internal life with other people. Once that was a matter of writing letters to friends. Now it seems to be about texting and twittering.

Just mastering reading and writing in terms of vocabulary and culture is not enough. That’s just about at the level of choosing brushes and mixing paint -- the Big Picture is an art form and always will be. Not everyone will appreciate every “school of art” and it might take as much skill to write Mickey Spillane as Proust. That’s not what this book is about. This book is a prescription for the future.

We must do a better job of understanding children as they come to school, esp. since we are now mixing ideograph-reading people with alphabet-reading people; we must have a better collection of strategies and materials to teach those children appropriately; we need ways to diagnose what’s not functioning properly in the dyslexic child (which structure, which connection, which developmental thickness or thinness); and we need courage as we enter the next stage of communication based on electronics and the Internet. Already the children read video better than the teachers can.


Cowtown Pattie said...

such a Google

Very interesting!

True about children and being read to, but here's the thing I've observed: I have four daughters, read to them all, took them to the library from Day One (almost) of their existence, read aloud to them, am a voracious reader myself, and yet, only two of the four are even close to what I would call "a reader".

So much for the external conditioning...

Oh, and they were all good students, no dyslexia, etc.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, well, I am the oldest of 6, Mom widowed at 28, she did not graduate from HS, but succeeded in turning 5 out of 6 of us into intellectuals with BA in English (me) or self-taught intellectuals, and half or more with genius IQ... I am the beneficiary of reading in infancy, a whole library of adult books before I was 10, near perfect spelling, an English degree from UC Irvine, and a lifetime of writing, tech writing, tutoring, and reading, and only now do I most truly appreciate my Mother's gift to me, my Father's genius genes, my still good eyesight, and now I more closely understand my daughter's dyslexia (and her Engineering genius)...I am 70 and apparently not too useful to an industry with illiterate mechanics and crashing airplanes, but I am humble and willing to read to small children to continue to give back what my parents gave to me, Jane Greene