PD Smith investigates the intricate process of reading as seen through Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid.
Soon-to-be 3QD contributor (he starts this coming Monday) PD Smith in The Guardian:
According to Herodotus, the Egyptian king Psamtik I (664-610 BCE) conducted an experiment to discover the first spoken language. Two babies were isolated in a shepherd’s hut and no one was allowed to talk to them. Eventually, one baby spoke. The first word it uttered was bekos, “bread” in Phrygian, a language from northwest Anatolia. According to cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, this was one of many such attempts to rediscover the Ursprache, the first language spoken on Earth. Indeed, it is a question archaeologists and linguists are still trying to answer today. But although the origins of spoken language may be lost in the mists of time, more tangible evidence exists for written language, and Psamtik would have been pleasantly surprised. Wolf cites recent evidence that suggests Egyptian hieroglyphs may be older (circa 3,400 BCE) than even Sumerian cuneiform writing.
Proust and the Squid is an inspiring celebration of the science of reading. In evolutionary terms, reading is a recently acquired cultural invention that uses existing brain structures for a radically new skill. Unlike vision or speech, there is no direct genetic programme passing reading on to future generations. It is an unnatural process that has to be learnt by each individual. As director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Boston, Wolf works with readers of all ages, but particularly those with dyslexia, a condition that proves “our brains were never wired to read”. Wolf therefore has much of practical value to say about why some people have difficulty reading and how to overcome this.