Get the key ideas from

Proust and the Squid

The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

By Maryanne Wolf
15-minute read
Audio available
Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Proust and the Squid (2007) tells the fascinating story of how the human brain learned to read. From the invention of the first writing systems to our brain’s amazing capacity to rearrange itself, reading expert Maryanna Wolf explains how the incredible skill of reading developed over the course of human history. That is, how it transforms our brains, thoughts, and culture, and why some of us struggle to learn it.

  • Book worms, word nerds, and language lovers
  • Parents and educators who want to encourage children to read 
  • People struggling with dyslexia

Maryanne Wolf is a scholar and teacher studying reading development. She is director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at the Tufts University in Boston and of the newly created Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Her other books include Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century (2016) and Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (2018).

Go Premium and get the best of Blinkist

Upgrade to Premium now and get unlimited access to the Blinkist library. Read or listen to key insights from the world’s best nonfiction.

Upgrade to Premium

What is Blinkist?

The Blinkist app gives you the key ideas from a bestselling nonfiction book in just 15 minutes. Available in bitesize text and audio, the app makes it easier than ever to find time to read.

Discover
4,000+ top
nonfiction titles

Get unlimited access to the most important ideas in business, investing, marketing, psychology, politics, and more. Stay ahead of the curve with recommended reading lists curated by experts.

Join Blinkist to get the key ideas from
Get the key ideas from
Get the key ideas from

Proust and the Squid

The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

By Maryanne Wolf
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
Synopsis

Proust and the Squid (2007) tells the fascinating story of how the human brain learned to read. From the invention of the first writing systems to our brain’s amazing capacity to rearrange itself, reading expert Maryanna Wolf explains how the incredible skill of reading developed over the course of human history. That is, how it transforms our brains, thoughts, and culture, and why some of us struggle to learn it.

Key idea 1 of 9

When humans started writing, our brains rearranged themselves to take on the challenge of reading.

The history of reading is long and complicated, but this much is obvious: our brains learned to read when we began to write.

Of course, it’s hard to pinpoint when exactly humans first invented writing. But it seems that, long before there were any alphabets with different letters representing distinct sounds of a particular language, humans began to record information through visual symbols.

One of the earliest examples can be found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. There, archeologists have uncovered stones marked with cross-hatched lines they believe to be almost 80,000 years old. In this case, it’s not known what the lines represent, but there are other examples of early human cultures using similarly marked stones, shells, and clay pieces to record economic transactions. So there’s good reason to believe that the lines in the Blombos Cave are not just random scribbles, but carry meaning.

The discovery that you could represent things in the world through abstract symbols, and thereby record events for future generations, was a revolutionary idea. So revolutionary, in fact, that it ended up changing our brains.

The key message here is: When humans started writing, our brains rearranged themselves to take on the challenge of reading.

Our brains are made up of billions of connected nerve cells, or neurons. These neurons have the amazing ability to restructure themselves and form new connections, depending on how we use them. Scientists call this phenomenon “neural plasticity.”

When humans first learned to read, new neural pathways formed in their brains that allowed them to detect and decode intricate visual symbols at rapid speed. If you remember what it was like to learn to read as a child, you will appreciate how powerful this transformation can be. From not knowing what to make of those strange markings on the page, your reading skills soon become so automatic that you can’t not read the words in front of you.

Neuroscientists have shown that, when humans look at unfamiliar, letter-like shapes, we only activate a small part of the visual areas located in the back of our brain. But when we see letters we know, our brain’s activity nearly triples. Not only does it engage more of the visual areas, but it also fires up parts of the brain specialized in language processing, hearing, and abstract concepts.

One of the most important new connections that first formed in our ancestors’ brains as they learned to read was between a part of the back of the brain called the angular gyrus an area responsible for association – and areas involved in object recognition. This neuronal breakthrough was the basis for some of the first complex writing systems, which we’ll get to know in the following blinks.

Upgrade to continue Read or listen now

Key ideas in this title

Upgrade to continue Read or listen now

Learn more, live more

Sign up now to learn and grow every day with the key ideas from top nonfiction and podcasts in 15 minutes.
Created with Sketch.