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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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