Skip to main content

Proust and the Squid – Maryanne Wolf ***

There’s no doubt this is an eye-catching title, though it does seem a touch pretentious until you realize that Maryanne Wolf is pulling together Proust as someone who described his first experience of reading, and the squid which has given us a fair number of insights into the operation of the brain, due to its enormous and hence easily accessible neurons.
The premise of the book is appealing. Reading has transformed the human over the thousands of years, yet it’s not a ‘natural’ activity of the brain. So what is going on in our heads when we read? Of itself this is not really the premise of a full book but a good article – what was needed to make it more, was the history of science, context and people involved in our understanding of reading.
Where Wolf does this we get some excellent highlights. For instance, the revelation for those not into Ancient Greek history that Socrates came down firmly against reading, feeling it would damage the oral tradition – because words in a book can’t be questioned and asked for explanation – is both fascinating and insightful.
Unfortunately, though, much of the book isn’t like this. Sadly, for a book about reading I found myself skipping chunks because it was too – well, dull. There’s too much simple description of what’s happening in the brain when we read or woffly philosophising about reading without the narrative and interest of good popular science. It doesn’t help that there’s repeated about three times a confusion between correlation and causality. After listing a very short number of ‘very creative’ people who may have had dyslexia, Wolf (whose own child is dyslexic) asserts that the fact that such creative people were dyslexic (there’s a fair amount of speculation as the list includes, for instance da Vinci) ‘is not coincidental’. Unfortunately it is even easier to assert that the many very creative people who weren’t/aren’t dyslexic ‘is not coincidental.’ This isn’t science.
Overall, then, an interesting idea with some excellent points along the way, but disappoints as a popular science book.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…