September 2008 Archives

...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. ... 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.
We were never born to read. [With the invention of reading] we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain is a delightful rarity: a treatise that will pass the strictest scholarly and scientific scrutiny while being completely accessible - and fascinating - to the layperson. The author, Maryanne Wolf, is a professor of child development at Tufts University near Boston, and she also directs the Center for Reading and Language Research. Her passion is developing a better understanding of how the human brain re-organized (and re-organizes) its own circuitry to permit people to communicate through the written word. But her research isn't limited to the historical or theoretical; she's also determined to find ways to cope "when the brain can't learn to read." And her focus isn't limited to the past or present; she's doing her best to look into the future to see how our transformation into a digital society might affect our reading skills.

The book is less than 250 pages (with another sixty pages devoted to notes, sparing the casual reader a slog through the omnipresent footnotes that mark an academic text), but its breadth and scope are expansive. Wolf takes us through the known history of writing, starting with clay tokens dating to 8,000 BC and which represented the first accounting records; to Sumerian cuneiforms and Egyptian hieroglyphics; to the first alphabet (attributed to Semitic workers living in Egypt around 1,900 BC); with a detour through Greece to explore the surprising condemnation of writing by none other than Socrates, who believed that the access to unsupervised reading would lead to undisciplined thinking, erroneous conclusions, and the destruction of memory.

The author then describes at length what goes on inside the brain when we read. Thanks to advances in brain mapping, scientists can now literally see the process of reading played out across the brain, beginning with visual recognition of the words, followed by word-specific activation, phonological processing (connecting letters to sounds), and, finally, semantic processing (assessing varied meanings and associations), all of which takes place in the normal reading brain in .2-.5 of a second. If this sounds overwhelming, never fear. Wolf considerately places this jargon-heavy science into a neat package of italicized text, and points out that those who aren't all that interested can skip to the next section and be no worse for having done so.

Then, having described how the brain is supposed to handle the process of reading, she delves into those situations where it doesn't work that way. She spends a great deal of time on dyslexia, a syndrome that still isn't fully understood although great strides are being made in that direction. If nothing else, Wolf offers great hope to those who have children or other loved ones who are having difficulty learning to read. She urges calmness and patience in the case of children who seem to be "behind the curve," as the acquisition of reading skills varies greatly among individuals.

Wolf comes by this advice honestly; her children are dyslexic, and she and her husband had several dyslexic ancestors. She presents compelling evidence that dyslexia isn't an unmitigated curse, as there are too many examples of brilliant dyslexics whose contributions to culture and society through the ages are unmistakable and invaluable. In her words, dyslexia, with its seemingly untidy mix of genetic talents and cultural weaknesses, exemplifies human diversity├▒with all the important gifts this diversity bestows on human culture.

Finally, Wolf ponders the implications of a digital society, where the traditional written word has been replaced by pixels and sound bites. If the book has a weakness, it comes here, as the subject is given relatively short shrift. But at least one set of questions illuminates one significant source of concern:

Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?

I can't think of anyone to whom I wouldn't recommend this book, but I think it's an especially valuable and enlightening resource to three groups. First, educators who teach reading will benefit from the author's insights about how the human brain learns to comprehend the written word. Second, parents of young, pre-literate children need to understand the long-term significance of that seemingly simple things - like merely talking to their children - can have on their ability to achieve effective literacy (pay close attention to her thoughts about "the war on word poverty").

The third group is perhaps less obvious. I think that writers, professional and otherwise, will benefit from Wolf's perspective about the purposes of reading. Writers would do well to internalize the quote that introduces this post and ponder the implication that their words are most successful when they provide not an end, but a beginning ├▒ a jumping off point where their readers build upon a foundation in ways that the author may not be able to conceive.

I don't remember how I stumbled across it, but The 20x200 Blog is a fascinating showcase for a wide variety of artists. If you like what you see, you can buy the artwork for a fixed price of $20, $200, or $2,000, depending on the size of the piece. Anyway, one of the posts that caught my eye dealt with a video featuring Jason Polan, a freelance artist from New York City who also happens to be a member, presumably in good standing, of the Taco Bell Drawing Club, and whose current project is to draw every person in NYC. He also paints big ants, thereby endearing himself to this blog. 

The video that's the subject of the 20x200 post was commissioned by the State Bar of Texas, and it's a very good primer on the importance of the separation of powers among the three branches of government. Here 'tis, courtesy of YouTube:

That's Jason's actual arm doing the sketching in the video. I thought it was a great piece of work, and quite effective in communicating basic concepts in an appealing fashion. (I'm a sucker for ads that incorporate drawing; the current UPS "whiteboard" series of TV commercials comes to mind.) My curiosity was also piqued by the pairing of a New York artist with the Texas Bar, and I wanted to know more about the project. I couldn't find anything online so I took the unprecedented blogging step of doing some actual research, thereby avoiding my usual tactic of just making something up. I emailed Jason with some questions, and he very graciously carved out the time to answer them. Here's the transcript.
NYC is pretty far from Austin. How did you and the State Bar hook up with one another?

: I think a producer at the group that was in charge of making the films had seen a film I made with a friend, Meredith Zielke, called How To Draw A Giraffe on the Wholphin Website and contacted me.

Where were the videos shot?

: Atlanta

Each video looks pretty clean, almost as if each was created from a single uninterrupted shot. Was that indeed the case? If so, how many takes were required to get the final version of each?

: Yea, each one had to be done with one shot. The editors changed speeds on some parts (you can notice it at the end of each film because I was writing too slow) but each one was done in one shot. They took three or four full attempts at each. A couple of times I would stop because I messed something up or there were a couple cases of going through the whole script and then people deciding something needed to be reworked. While I was doing it I was nervous but I was happy with the direction and I think they came out well.

Apart from doing the drawing, what was your role in the creation of the stories? Did you have input to the scripts?

: Scripts were completed before I did the drawings so I was completely out of the equation for their production, but as we figured out timing with the drawings we realized that some things in the script could be reworked. I gravitated toward visual things and parts of the script were not very visual - things needed to be educational the whole way through so we hopefully found a balance.

Did you also narrate the videos?

: Nope.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in this project?

: I was fairly nervous the whole way through. I wanted to be producing visually stimulating things that were also learning tools. I needed to be producing them in the order presented at a particular timing. Things were altered a little with the pace changes but I was trying to avoid that where I could and make things easier for editors (and more pleasing for viewers).
You were no doubt perceptive enough to note that in a couple of places, I referred to videos. The separation of powers spot is one of a "Choose Well" series of three commissioned by the State Bar, and featuring Jason. The other two deal with judicial elections and serving on a jury. The State Bar should be commended for using such a creative approach to education.

I also want to again thank Jason Polan for taking the time to give us a behind-the-scenes look at the project.

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This page is an archive of entries from September 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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