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Proust and the Squid
The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
Maryanne Wolf
read on April 1, 2012

This book is about what happens in our brains as we learn to read. The most interesting part for me was the realization that reading/writing is entirely a human intellectual invention. It's not instinctual, like speech. Humans have had the same brain chemistry for the last forty thousand years. We did not "evolve" our brains into understanding written language. If a child, or community, is raised in isolation - they would figure out how to communicate verbally. Our brains are wired for that. Certainly, no one would make up a language like english in a generation - but they'd come up with something. But they would not write it down. That part isn't instinctual the way aural language is. It's extremely complicated. You might draw a picture of a house, or a cow or something, that makes sense (though I don't want to undersell how even just that would be a giant leap in terms of communicative complexity) - but it takes a huge leap to go from that to drawing symbols that represent phonemes, which combined create a "word" that represents an object.

But against all odds - it ended up just clicking for some folks ten thousand years ago, and now we have an alphabet. And every single person that learns it needs to learn it from scratch.

The book covers a ton more than just that. I particularly liked the discussion of how different languages change the way we think, and which languages are most "efficient" and might cause the most positive effects to our thought processes. I think that was an idea I first encountered in a Gladwell book early on, and has always stuck with me. Your native language is sort of a permanent operating system that your brains communication systems sit on top of, and small linguistic changes can have a big impact on a persons life, just in terms of how it structures their thought processes.

But the best part was just that idea that the alphabet is a purely intellectual achievement. Makes me wonder what else is just waiting to be thought of.

Author Bio:

Maryanne Wolf is the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research, and Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University.