'Proust and the Squid': Why reading is unnatural

It may come as a shock to realize that reading is not a natural human ability.

'Proust and the Squid': Why reading is unnatural
Photo by Isaac Y. Takeu / Unsplash

If you’re a bookworm like me, it may come as a shock to realize that reading is not a natural human ability, unlike speaking and understanding a spoken language.

Yet this is precisely what Maryanne Wolf shows us in her fascinating book “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”. Wolf, who is Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is known for her work in cognitive neuroscience and developmental psycholinguistics on the reading brain, literacy development, and dyslexia.

“We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organisation of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ invention could come about because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become.”

Proust on reading

If you’re wondering about the unusual title of the book, it refers to the French novelist Marcel Proust of “À la recherche du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”, though the title was previously and less accurately translated into English as “Remembrance of Things Past”) fame.

Proust was not only an avid reader, but also wrote the long essay “On Reading” in his preface to John Ruskin’s “Sesame and Lilies”. As the description in the Kindle edition of “On Reading” puts it:

“Reading was, for Marcel Proust, more than the pursuit of knowledge: a truly spiritual activity, it was a means of transforming and transcending the self. By reading great authors, he contends, we not only learn of great ideas, but are enriched by the fruits of the world’s most inspirational minds.”

How smart is that squid?

If Proust in the title represents the story of reading, then the squid symbolizes the science of the reading brain. The squid and its fellow cephalopod the octopus are considered to be the most intelligent invertebrates. In fact, a new study might indicate that giant squid are highly intelligent.

“For example, we now know that the giant squid has about 2.7 billion DNA base pairs in its genome, according to the paper. For context, humans have about 3 billion base pairs.
“The researchers also found 100 genes that belong to the protocadherin family — typically not found in abundance in invertebrates — in the giant squid genome. These genes are a sign that giant squid have complex and highly-evolved brains.”

The squid represents an example of advanced cognitive evolution in animals. So does our reading brain. While those of us who know how to read might take it for granted, reading is an invention that has literally transformed us as a species.

The magical human brain

The ability to read is not genetically transmitted, and no structure in the human brain was originally designed for reading. Moreover, as “Proust and the Squid” expertly shows us, the reading brain that humans started out with when writing was invented in Sumer is vastly different from the ones we now have.

This book should give us newfound respect for the act of reading and the plasticity of the human brain. With all the difficulties involved in learning how to read, we should marvel that any of us are able to read at all.

It is nothing short of miraculous that as young children, we somehow learn this complex skill, and, if fortunate, become lifelong readers and book lovers, entering a world of words and mastering even more difficult texts that challenge our intellect, spark our imagination, and encourage critical thinking.

Every time we read, we rebel against nature.

Every time we read, we transform our brain.

Reading has shaped our species, and our reading brain is continuing to evolve as we transition from print to screens.

One thing, however, will remain true: we are what we read.