Book Summary: Proust & the Squid

Proust and the Squid (which refers to the different but complementary ways of understanding the reading process), is an inspiring celebration of the science of reading. In evolutionary terms, reading is a recently acquired cultural invention that uses existing brain structures for a radically new skill. Unlike vision or speech, there is no direct genetic program passing reading on to future generations. It is an unnatural process that has to be learnt by each individual.

In this book, Proust personifies the intellectually transformative aspect of writing and reading; whereas the squid — mysteriously morphed into a stylised octopus on the cover — stands for the biological part of the reading equation: in the 1950s the squid’s long central axon showed scientists how neurons fire and transmit information to each other. Wolf’s story of the development of the reading brain encompasses many fields, from linguistics, archaeology and education to history, literature and neuroscience. As director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Boston, Wolf works with readers of all ages, but particularly those with dyslexia, a condition that proves “our brains were never wired to read”. Interweaving this vast knowledge of neuroscience, psychology, literature, and linguistics, Wolf takes the reader from the brains of a pre-literate Homer to a literacy-ambivalent Plato, from an infant listening to Goodnight Moon to an expert reader of Proust, and finally to an often misunderstood child with dyslexia whose gifts may be as real as the challenges he or she faces. Wolf therefore has much of practical value to say about why some people have difficulty reading and how to overcome this.

Ambitious, provocative, and rich with examples, Proust and the Squid celebrates reading, one of the single most remarkable inventions in history. Once embarked on this magnificent story of the reading brain, you will never again take for granted your ability to absorb the written word.