Summary of Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Can you imagine what life would be like without the ability to read? Most of us take reading for granted because it is something we do every day. But have you ever stopped to think what the world would be like without it? It is almost impossible to even think about it. However, the fact that our brains learned how to read is actually amazing. After all, a bunch of random lines making up words and sentences is something that probably seemed unfathomable until it was done. 

This book summary looks at this incredible ability we have to read and how it originated. It also explains why some brains have difficulty reading. Reading is something we don’t often think about but something we should be grateful about nonetheless. 

In this book summary, readers will discover:

  • How our brains learned to read
  • Children prepare to read before they can
  • Dyslexia
  • Why reading should be preserved

Key lesson one: How our brains learned to read

Guess when humans learned how to read? It is difficult to get an exact point in time but it was pretty soon after humans began to write. The first writings of humans did not consist of any particular alphabet or language. It instead had visual symbols like those seen in the Blombos cave in South Africa. This cave has some of the earliest examples of marked stones that have cross-hatched lines. Similarly, other early human cultures also used marked stones, shells and pieces of clay to record transactions telling us that these are not just meaningless doodles but carry meaning to them – meanings that people at the time understood.  

Our brains ended up changing in order to be able to read these symbols. This is possible because of the neurons in our brain. They are able to restructure themselves and develop new connections when they are used and depending on how they are used. This is referred to as neural plasticity. When humans first learned to read, new neural pathways were created in their brains that allowed them to decipher the visual symbols they saw. This is exactly what happens when a child learns to read today. Neuroscientists have even found that when we look at unfamiliar shapes similar to letters only a small part of the brain is activated. However, when we are faced with letters we know, our brain activity triples, engaging visual areas as well as those involved in language processing and hearing. 

Writing was invented throughout history by different cultures and at different times. Most of them consisted of symbols that somewhat resembled the things they represented. These were known as pictographs. For the human brain to understand these pictographs, they formed pathways between the visual association areas and the frontal lobes. This is what allowed ancient Egyptians to expand their hieroglyphs until they represented both a word and the sound of the word. It was not until later that the Greeks then realized that it was possible to break down their language into a limited number of sounds and that each sound could be represented by a letter. This allowed the Greeks to easily record their spoken language and the system provided many advantages. Since they used less than 26 letters to represent the sounds of the language, it made it easier for our brain to comprehend and therefore could be learned quickly as well. The alphabetic system also allowed the Greeks to record both spoken word and unspoken thought. This, as we know, led to a rapid expansion in culture, science, politics and art which can still be read about today.    

Key lesson two: Children prepare to read before they can

The brains of children actually start preparing them for reading long before they understand words. The visual system needed to recognize symbols is fully functional at just six months old and by the 18-month mark, children realize that things around them have their own names. Things progress quickly after this point and children who are read to at an early age also show an improvement in their speech. It has been demonstrated in many studies and the reverse has also been proven true. Those children who have not been read to or have been spoken to less than others tend to have a smaller vocabulary and struggle with reading. 

Therefore, when children are exposed to reading in their early years, they have an easier time learning to read as they get older. Children move through five stages of reading development. The stage when children first begin to connect letters and sounds is known as the pre-reader stage. They then become novice readers when they begin to learn easy words and sentences. This is the point at which they develop a basic understanding of the principles of a language. It is also at this stage that they move through a familiar pattern of mistakes. The read words that make sense in context but do not resemble each other. For example, mom instead of mother. Secondly, the read words that are orthographically similar but have a different context. Like reading horse instead of house. Lastly, as they progress as novice readers they make mistakes with words that are similar in both context and orthography – like reading ball instead of bat. 

At the third stage, they become known as decoding readers. They are able to read words and sentences smoothly and their brains shift from simply deciphering letters to beginning to find meaning and understanding. Children become comprehending readers when reading becomes fully automatic and behind to involve higher levels of thinking. The brain now has enough time to comprehend and even predict the contents of the text. The final stage is when the child becomes a reading expert and can experience different worlds through reading. 

However, when children reach the reading expert level it does not mean they stop learning to read. As reading fluency increases, children unlock more features in the material they are reading. This is when they learn about irony, metaphors and opposing viewpoints. They also begin to build connections between their lives and their surroundings with the text they are reading.

Key lesson three: Dyslexia

Dyslexia was first described in 1870 by Adolph Kussmaul, a researcher. It was then referred to as word blindness but took a long time to be recognized by others. Despite its late discovery, Dyslexia has affected some of the brightest minds including Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison. 

Dyslexia is known to take many different forms. The three most common issues caused are problems with reading fluency, matching letters and sounds and a combination of both. The potential causes of dyslexia are also numerous. One such cause is a flaw in the visual and auditory systems of the brain. This was also first suggested by Kussmaul after studying a male who suffered two strokes that damaged his visual system and the part of the brain that relays information from the visual system to the areas dealing with language. This rendered the gentleman unable to read. 

The second possible cause of dyslexia is the brain’s inability to get to the processing speed necessary for reading. It has been seen in studies that there is a delay in communication between the visual, auditory and motor systems. This delay could be caused by a lack of connection between the areas. 

No matter the cause, those who suffer from dyslexia find a different way to read. This has been confirmed by brain imagery which shows a difference in circuitry between dyslexics and other readers. Norman Geschwind, a neurologist, found that dyslexia is often associated with unusual speech and motor patterns, problems with coordinating movements and emotional issues. However, it also resulted in spatial and visual talents. The possible reason behind this is that people with dyslexia use the two hemispheres of their brain more symmetrically. 

Key lesson four: Why reading should be preserved

When writing first came about in ancient Greece, not everyone embraced it. They believed it would corrupt our memory and make us gullible, believing everything that was written. Sound familiar? It was the same argument that arose over the internet and its use today. There may be some truth in it given the decrease seen in attention spans, verbal SAT scores and memory. However, despite this decline, reading remains an important part of our development. 

Reading should not be taken for granted and we have to allow our children the time to develop this ability. Instead of simply using an electronic device, time should be spent on ‘old-school’ reading so that children can develop understanding and meaning behind the words they are faced with. It is up to us to provide children with the resources and tools they need to develop their reading skills and move through the stages of reading at their own pace. 

The key takeaway from Proust and the Squid is:

Reading is an important part of human history, culture and development. The brain’s ability to read stems from needing to understand what was written. From early pictographs to the modern alphabet, the ability to read is incredibly fascinating. From six months old, a child’s brain is preparing itself for reading and it is important that we read to children to help them on their journey to reading themselves. The five stages that children progress through are important landmarks in their journeys. Those with dyslexia will find learning to read difficult but it is only because their brain has to make different connections to process the words. The fact remains that our brain undergoes changes in order to read and no matter how or when it is achieved, the ability to read remains one of the most important parts of our culture and future. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in Proust and the Squid:

Children are never too young for books! You should aim to read to children from a young age so that they begin to learn and understand language and words earlier. Their brains have the ability to begin making these connections from six months old! So, the more you expose them to reading when they are young, they are more likely to learn to read faster and have a larger vocabulary.

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