Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

★★★★★ Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in lay science

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Proust and the Squid is a celebration of written language. It tells the story of the evolution of reading, first as a product of human civilization and then as an educational journey each individual goes through. It’s a beautifully written and eye-opening account, one that succeeds brilliantly in taking an often invisible capability and, through thorough examination, showing what a miracle it truly is.

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. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences.

The book is divided into three parts: the invention of written language, the process each person goes through as they learn to read, and dyslexia—challenges with learning to read.

The invention of written language

While humans began to speak around 100,000 years ago, when we developed anatomically modern vocal tracts, the first languages were developed around 5,000 years ago in Sumer and Egypt. As Wolf points out, “structurally there is little to differentiate our brain today from that of nonliterate humans 40,000 years ago. We share our brain structures with our Sumerian and Egyptian ancestors.” Whereas spoken language is therefore largely innate — our biology is designed specifically for it — written language is a technological innovation.

The history of written language as described here is surprisingly fascinating, from Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics to Chinese to Cretan Linear A & B to the Greek alphabet, with much in between.

Source: Tumblr

The apparent visual differences between written languages capture none of the true complexity of devising a writing system, nor the conceptual leaps necessary to move from one to another. For example, the discovery that spoken language can be broken down into individual sounds (phonemes) was momentous, as it allowed us to invent alphabets, which at around 26 characters are far more efficient than cuneiform (900 characters) or hieroglyphics (thousands).

This efficiency in turn enabled a huge leap forward in human civilization, as reading & writing became easier to learn (and therefore democratized) and more efficient (enabling cognitive effort to be redirected from memorization to thinking and understanding): “Suddenly our ancestors could access knowledge that would no longer need to be repeated over and over again, and that could expand greatly as a result. Literacy made it unnecessary to reinvent the wheel and thus made possible the more sophisticated inventions that would follow…”

The journey of an individual reader

As a cultural artifact, writing is not like spoken language. Our brains evolved to speak, and we learn to talk without study. By contrast, as Wolf stresses, our brains never evolved to read, and “reading never just happens to anyone.” As we learn to read, we retread the path we made as a civilization over thousands of years, but this time, it takes a few short years.

Wolf breaks down reading development into five stages. As a parent of two elementary school-aged children, I found this particularly interesting, as the stages are clearly distinguishable once you know what you’re looking for.

1. Emerging Pre-Reader

The first phase of reading is simply exposure to language, stories, and books as physical options. Concepts as simple as hearing many words and learning how to turn pages build a foundation for reading later. The emerging pre-reader “samples and learns from the full range of multiple sounds, words, concepts, images, stories, exposure to print, literacy materials, and just plain talk during the first five years of life.”

2. Novice Reader

Once you realize that the words on the page mean something, you can begin to try to crack the code. The novice reader takes the first steps here by building grapheme-phoneme correspondence: “The major discovery for a novice reader is… that the letters connect to the sounds of the language. This is the essence of the alphabetic principle.”

3. Decoding Reader

The decoding reader is “a smoother, more confident reader on the verge of becoming fluent.” At this stage, one learns the common letter patterns, vowel variations and pairs, sight-words and sight-chunks, and many types of morphemes (such as prefixes and suffixes like “s” and “ed”). Consider how far a child must come to pronounce all the different sounds “ea” represents in a passage like this: “There once was a beautiful bear who sat on a seat near to breaking and read by the hearth about how the earth was created. She smiled beatifically, full of ideas for the realm of her winter dreams.”

4. Fluent, comprehending reader

Decoding is not the same as comprehension, and the next stage requires developing “an increased capacity to apply an understanding of the varied uses of words — irony, voice, metaphor, and point of view — to go below the surface of the text.” Fluent, comprehending readers, as Richard Vacca says, “know how to activate prior knowledge before, during, and after reading, to decide what’s important in a text, to synthesize information, to draw inferences during and after reading, to ask questions, and to self-monitor and repair faulty comprehension.”

Fluency is “a matter of being able to utilize all the special knowledge a child has about a word — its letters, letter patterns, meanings, grammatical functions, roots, and endings — fast enough to have time to think and comprehend. Everything about a word contributes to how fast it can be read. The point of becoming fluent, therefore, is to read — really read — and understand.” This is where the magic happens.

For the first time in reading development, the brain becomes fast enough to think and feel differentially. The gift of time is the physiological basis for our capacity to think “endless thoughts most wonderful.”

5. The Expert Reader

The final stage is expert reading, when we integrate a life of experience, read and lived, into the process to allow our comprehension to encompass “the entire range of complexity in any text.” The development of the expert reader is never complete.

The brain and cognitive processes

For an expert reader, it takes at most a half second to read any word, thanks to “the almost instantaneous fusion of cognitive, linguistic, and affective processes; multiple brain regions; and billions of neurons that are the sum of all that goes into reading.” This is miraculous, and Wolf does a fantastic deep dive on the perceptual and cognitive processes that occur in the process of reading a single word. It’s particularly interesting since all of the brain structures and capabilities at work evolved for purposes other than reading, but learning to read restructures them and brings them together in new ways. Among the capabilities involved are:

  • Phonological development : how a child gradually learns to hear, segment, and understand the small units of sounds that make up words
  • Orthographic development : how the child learns that his or her writing systems represents oral language, and learning about visual aspects of print—features of letters, common letter patterns, and “sight” words
  • Semantic and pragmatic development : how children build up the meanings of words from the language and culture around them
  • Syntactic development: how children learn the grammatical forms and structures of sentences
  • Morphological development: conventions surrounding how words are formed from smaller, meaningful roots and units of meaning

Learning these capabilities quite literally rewires the brain, both in order to be able to read and then through what we can read. Brain scans of English speakers and Chinese speakers show different patterns of activation during reading.

The book’s third part covers difficulty in learning to read—dyslexia. It is quite interesting if you have a particular interest in dyslexia, and it is a special interest of the author. It went into more detail than I thought necessary for the goals of the book, but I found it to be a fascinating counterexample to the normal evolution of a reading brain. Reading is so complex that much can go wrong. There isn’t only one way a brain can be wired, and a brain structured to read is not a given.

By its ability to become virtually automatic, literacy allowed the individual reader to give less time to initial decoding processes and to allocate more cognitive time and ultimately more cortical space to the deeper analysis of recorded thought… A system that can become streamlined through specialization and automaticity has more time to think. This is the miraculous gift of the reading brain.

Enhanced cognition

Wolf focuses on clearly delineating between oral and written language as innate vs taught, which allows us to reconceptualize written language from a “natural” human ability to a technology. This is eye-opening. In essence, reading and writing are innovations that enable us to transcend the biological limits of our brains. Our brains have limited memory, but we can write down libraries worth of information, forget it, and read it back later. Our brains exist at specific points in spacetime, but writing can travel great distances and across millennia, allowing us to communicate with and learn from humans we will never meet. Written language is a more time-efficient communication medium than oral language (in part because we can read alone and never need to meet the writer), which allows individuals to learn faster, as well as furthering progress generally, since we can access and build upon previously-generated knowledge more readily.

Reading allows us to experience people, places, and stories — fact or fiction — we will never encounter. Writing enhances our thinking itself by pulling threads from the swirling cacophony in our heads and shaping them into concrete structures with precise meaning, which through iterative reading and writing we can then develop, rework, and refine: “the very process of writing one’s thoughts leads individuals to refine those thoughts and to discover new ways of thinking.”

Socrates, technology, and fear of change

A major theme threaded through the book is fear of change to our language systems. Wolf primarily focuses on two major turning points, first when writing became prevalent in ancient Greece, replacing their oral tradition, and second in the present moment, as we shift from words on a page to the “continuous partial attention” culture of the Internet.

It’s quite interesting to learn that Socrates looked askance on written language. (Thankfully, his pupil Plato ignored this concern and left us a rich history of Socrates’ words and deeds.) Coming out of the long Greek oral tradition, and a master of the art of dialogue, his concern was that written language would undermine “the dialogic process Socrates saw as the heart of education.” That is, moving from interactive conversation to the solitary reading of static words on a page would undermine thinking, learning, and memory themselves.

There is certainly something to this—one can consume libraries’ worth of books without truly understanding anything, much less being prepared to engage in Socratic-style dialogue. But one can also talk (or listen) all day without understanding as well. It’s not that either modality is better or worse, they’re just different, and each presents great opportunity if we use them appropriately. Wolf points out (following Vygotsky) how the act of writing has the capacity to refine our thinking: “the process of writing can actually reenact within a single person the dialectic that Socrates described to Phaedrus. In other words, the writer’s efforts to capture ideas with ever more precise written words contain within them an inner dialogue, which each of us, who has struggled to articulate our thoughts, knows from the experience of watching our ideas change shape through the sheer effort of writing.”

Oddly, Wolf doesn’t bring the same flexibility to her assessment of how our language use is changing today. She paints a technophobic and borderline dystopian picture, taking Kurzweil’s futurism at face value and quoting Tenner’s question of “whether our new information technology would ‘threaten the very intellect that created it.’” She considers the shift from physical paper to screens as significant as that from spoken to written language.

I think this is misguided. First, the changes are not equivalent. It is far fetched to consider the invention of the browser “back button” and hyperlinks (the two concrete examples provided) as leaps forward on the scale of the invention of written language, and the celebration of written language in this book itself provides sufficient evidence of that. Second, Wolf’s concerns are exactly parallel to those of Socrates—yes, access to more information more easily by more people carries risks, then and now. The democratization of language, the ability to consume information outside of educational institutions, and the free flow of information will have costs as well as benefits. But it’s easy for those deeply in love with our current practices (as Socrates loved dialogue and Wolf loves words on paper) to see only the downsides. It is simply inconsistent to dismiss Socrates’ concerns about changes in language technology while taking the same view today. As Wolf says of Socrates, “Had he lived only one generation later, he might have held a more generous view.”

Conclusion

Reading and writing are so integral to our daily lives that we never think about them. By deconstructing the evolution of written language, and the evolution of each human brain as it learns to read, Proust and the Squid helps us see reading for the miracle it is. It’s a capability that is not only fascinating in its own right, but foundational to human civilization. Writing enhances our thinking. Reading expands our experience. They extend our memories and processing abilities. Written language allows us to do things our brains previously were incapable of, both individually and as a society. It is absolutely to be celebrated.