Proust & Squid
by Maryanne Wolf
Maryanne Wolf has written a deeply rewarding exploration of reading and its impact on the human brain -- from a historical perspective, from a social perspective, from a literary perspective, from a scientific perspective, and finally from the perspective of the parent of a dyslexic son. While neatly transitioning from one topic to the next in a logical sequence, she has also managed to interweave all of these disparate elements throughout the book. With Dr. Wolf's own obvious love affair with the written word and the power of prose, the different perspectives and strands of thought become a metaphor for the brain itself, with its interconnecting, interactive network of billions of neurons.This is a meticulously researched book brimming with detailed scientific information, and yet equally full of rich literary detail, as the history of the reading brain is also the history of the linguistic richness that a few thousand years of literacy has produced.
The final chapters deal with dyslexia, and in those chapters I sense a tension between Dr. Wolf's own past and future - just as she sees a tension between the human experience of reading words on paper and the emergence of a digital age. Dr. Wolf has spent a good part of her scientific career attempting to study and categorize dyslexia, breaking it down into a second and third "subtypes" determined by simple tests of a single mental challenge, that of speedy retrieval of words. But the eyes of a parent tell a truth that was hidden to the scientist: as she sits at the dining room table writing "about why Orton was probably wrong" when he wrote of right hemispheric dominance among dyslexic children, her teenage son sits beside her, drawing an exquisitely detailed rendition of the leaning tower of Pisa.... upside down. The dyslexia is not a product of a deficiency in a single skill, but the expression of brain far more exquisitely complex than the drawing it is capable of producing. The next chapter, called "Genes, Gifts, and Dyslexia", shifts from the technical focus on missed connections to an exploration as to "why Orton was right" -- how the creative and artistic talents shared by so many dyslexics may indeed stem from a brain geared to rely more on its right hemispheric connections.
The book ends on a note of expectancy, as it is clear that however much we know and the author has laid out for us, we are only beginning the journey to know, understand, and appreciate the wondrous powers of the reading brain.
* Reviewer Abigail Marshall is the author of The Everything Parent's Guide To Children With Dyslexia: All You Need To Ensure Your Child's Success (Everything: Parenting and Family)