I just finished reading Proust and the Squid, the fascinating book by Maryanne Wolf about how we developed and acquired a ‘reading brain’. Although sometimes a little dense in its use of linguistic terminology, it is a very nice read and highly recommended if you are interested in the way we developed one of the most precious gifts available to mankind: the ability to read and write. If Wolf does one thing with this book, it is give you back the amazement pertaining to your own capability to read; to make out meaning out of tiny shapes and forms on paper and their linguistic, grammatical and semantic connections, literally in the blink of an eye. Wolf not only describes how we as a species adapted our brains over centuries to be able to read and write (which is not an innate capability), but also describes how children every day in a limited time-span are required (and able) to do the same thing. She also describes everything that can go wrong in this process, discussing various reading disorders and their origins in a different mind or brain ‘set-up’ or arrangement. After having read this you will truly realize what a wonder it is you now seem to be reading this text so naturally and smoothly as you actually are (I hope!).
She ends her book with a reflection on the future development of our writing capabilities and skills in a world that will increasingly be dominated by screens and where oral and visual communication and literacies will again be more stimulated. She is neither skeptic nor overly enthusiastic about these developments, bringing back into memory Socrates objections to written knowledge, but also the many positive things text culture has brought to humanity. At the same time the present shifts to new forms of literacy should be judged on their face-value. We will learn new things and develop many new (mental) capabilities, but should also try to preserve the mind-set associated with writing, becoming in a way as she calls it bi- or multitextual, thus still being able to analyse a text in multiple manners, capable of ‘probing what lies beneath any form of information.’ There are some good reviews of the book here and here. I would like to finish with a nice quote from the end of the book:
“In the transmission of knowledge the children and teachers of the future should not be faced with a choice between books and screens, between newspapers and capsuled versions of the news on the Internet, or between print and other media. Our transition generation has an opportunity, if we seize it, to pause and use our most reflective capacities, to use everything at our disposal to prepare for the formation of what will come next. The analytical, inferential, perspective-taking, reading brain with all its capacity for human consciousness, and the nimble, multifunctional, multimodal, information-integrative capacities of a digital mind-set do not need to inhabit exclusive realms. Many of our children learn to code-switch between two or more oral languages, and we can teach them also to switch between different presentations of written language and different modes of analysis. Perhaps, like the memorable image captured in 600 BCE of a Sumerian scribe patiently transcribing cuneiform beside an Akkadian scribe, we will be able to preserve the capacities of two systems and appreciate why both of them are precious.”