Monday, July 28, 2008

Born to read (Books - Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf)

Maryanne Wolf, the author of Proust and the Squid, a book that chronicles the evolution of written language and how the brain accommodated the shift from oral language to print, had to win me back after her opening sentence.

We were never born to read.

Meaning what, exactly? That we were not intended by fate to read? I'm not a fatalist. That we were not designed to read? Genetic code accomplishes change by chance, evolution comes about when the changes happen to be useful in a given environment.

Our ancestors' invention could come about only because of the human brain's extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain's ability to be shaped by experience.

Well then we were born to adapt, and we've adapted to reading written language. A strong opening is a good thing, but I found this one too sensational, but Wolf writes equally evocatively on what it is like to read, say, a paragraph of Proust, and what the brain is doing to result in that experience. I also found her saga of the human race's progression from purely spoken language, to written symbols pictorially representing things and concepts, to a finite system of symbols that represents units of of sound that can be generatively combined to evoke the spoken words which represent things, deft and engrossing storytelling.

Her book is a combination of anthropological and linguistic history and cognitive science.

Within that context, the generative capacity of reading parallels the fundamental plasticity in the circuit wiring of our brains: both permit us to go beyond the particulars given...Proust's understanding of the generative nature of reading contains a paradox: the goal of reading is to go beyond the author's ideas to thoughts that are increasingly autonomous, transformative, and ultimately independent of the written text. From the child's first, halting attempt to decipher letters, the experience of reading is not so much an end in itself as it is our best vehicle to a transformed mind, and,, literally and figuratively, to a changed brain.

I'm not sure that Proust's idea is necessarily paradoxical. That the point of a sequence of words evoking abstract experience is to go beyond the words is, well, the point. Wolf sometimes overreaches her subject matter for a "hey-wowness" it doesn't have. But her passion for what written language does do, the importance of reading as a formative experience, its necessity for the way we have evolved to think, and her eye to what she sees as the possible next cultural-linguistic transformation - one from printed narrative, which she characterizes as time-demanding and in-depth, to

the multidimensioned, continuous partial-attention culture

yes, it's the INTERNET, are powerfully expressed and make reading this book worthwhile. She can be credited for wondering of the potential gains as well as the losses in this next step, and compares her own fears of "unintended negative consequences" of a culture taken over by electronic media to Socrates' resistance to printed language in an age in which the oral tradition was the ne plus ultra of the cultured person.

Wolf is at her best when, for example, she addresses the current fashion of some parents to accelerate the speed at which a child learns to read, feeling it will give them an advantage. This is not necessarily the case and Wolf supports her case for what does constitute the most rich and productive learning environment with both descriptions of when in development neurons acquire their myelin sheathes and excerpts from To Kill a Mockingbird. There may be more to come on this book, as I am about half-way through, but right now I'll leave you with Wolf's excerpt from Harper Lee:

As I read the alphabet a faint line appeared between her eyebrows and after making me read most of the My First Reader and the stock market quotations from the Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me anymore, it would interfere with my reading. I never deliberately learned to read.... Reading was something that just came to me.... I could not remember when the lines above Atticus's moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory - anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.


verbivore said...

It makes me wonder if Wolf naturally writes this way or if she tried (or her agent or editor tried) to make the book more sensational in order to sell. How frustrating, especially because it sounds like her subject doesn't need it.
I'd like to read this one myself as well.

Ted said...

Verb - Actually, I've tempered my initial opinion somewhat. I feel like I was a bit harsh. I am finding this a worthwhile and interesting read.