Wednesday, April 30, 2014

[book] Proust and the Squid

I can’t remember who recommended this book to me, but as you’ll see by the end of this post, I feel compelled to write down what I learned from my reading of it.

The author,  Maryanne Wolf, a child development professor at Tufts in the Center for Reading and Language Research gives a detailed explanation of what happens — neurologically, socially — when we read, arguing that literacy is a cultural and learned trait that we should treat differently from the rest of our language instincts for communicating and thinking. If it took humans two thousand years to develop the written language, how can we expect children to adapt their minds properly after only two thousand days? (roughly the 7 years or so it takes to become functionally literate).

I came away with two thoughts: first, that reading well almost always means writing well; the best way to learn is to do. The author references this quote from Socrates (in Plato’s Phaedrus 275a), spoken to the inventor of writing:

You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Second, I’m thinking of the wisdom of the US Constitution, which admits that the text alone is not sufficient — a living, human trained judiciary is necessary to truly understand the meaning. Or the Catholic religious tradition, which says that we need both the text and the trained priesthood to understand the full meaning of the Bible. I’m back on my rant against those who claim to be knowledgeable just because they read The New York Times or whatever.

Understanding requires much more than simply knowing. I’m going to spend more time doing and less time reading.