Proust and the Squid

I read a book this morning titled Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brainwritten by Maryanne Wolf, a psychology professor at Tufts.  And although not my usual read – an impulse purchase on amazon, it was “recommended” and I could hardly resist the tittle – it proved an interesting enough book, and it certainly got me thinking more about why reading itself is such an important activity.

The basic premise of the book is best summarized by the first paragraph of the first chapter…

We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.

She maintains that reading, in and of itself, because of the neurological re-wiring that it necessitates, enables the brain of the reader to think in ways that are fundamentally different from those of the non-reader.  Very interesting.

Just a couple of days ago I wrote, in a relatively light-hearted manner, about how open texts and reading encourage higher levels of thinking, whereas Jersey Shore decidedly does not.  Little did I know that there is actual science to support this thesis! According to Wolf, this is possible because reading affects the brain’s development on two separate but equally significant levels – the “personal-intellectual and the biological.”

Regarding the biological, she argues that physiological and neurological processes that are involved in both learning to read and reading itself re-wire the brain in such a way that allow us to think in far more complex ways.  SInce reading is not an activity that our brains are naturally inclined to do (it’s a remarkably new cultural development, as even the most primitive writing systems only emerged on the scene within the last 10,000 years), the actual processes involved in learning to read, and in transitioning from novice to expert reader, change our brains in fundamental, permanent, and important ways.

In reference to the intellectual, she argues that reading forces us to think in ways that we normally would not.  For example, in reading we are able to encounter countless different universes and realities, we “try on” and identify with perspectives that are entirely different to our own, we enter characters thought processes and are witnesses to ideas that can be wildly divergent from ours (as in Eco’s latest book).  Moreover, every time we so much as look at a word, our brains tap into a near infinite list of knowledge, meanings, and associations that our highly personal and individualized, allowing us to read and comprehend on many levels.  We bring all of our selves into whatever it is we read, and of course, the more we read, the more we grow this “veritable treasure trove” of meanings, knowledge, and associations. And all that occurs before we even step back from the text and process it, going well beyond the words, processing, pondering, and reflecting on what we’ve read.

Biologically and intellectually, reading allows the species to go “beyond the information given” to create endless thoughts most beautiful and wonderful.

For bibliophiles and readers like myself, this is good news.  We’re on the right track.  Our intellectually active lives will help us continue to live intellectually active lives.  For those non-readers out there… open a book, it will help you think! Besides, as Proust so eloquently expresses in his book On Reading, “there are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favorite book.” Reading  is and will always be a “divine pleasure.”

4 thoughts on “Proust and the Squid

  1. Thanks for an excellent review – I saw the word “Proust” and has to check it out. Now I need to find and read this book. Such topics fascinate me, and I am BLOWN AWAY by how much is really going on behind an act that seems relatively simple to me.

    • Thanks! It was fascinating to read about how much is actually involved in reading, and just how significant the effects are. If there was ever a reason to keep reading, here it is.

  2. My god, this “reading” thing is an incredible technology! It will revolutionize education. Was this the last innovation of Steve Jobs? A secret Microsoft project? We MUST get this into our classrooms if we are to train students for jobs and win the competitive race with China.

    P.S. I’m sure that the reason we haven’t heard of it before is the fault of overpaid, unionized teachers.

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