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Re-wiring the reading brain


by Yolette Garcia 2 Jan 2008

OK, Jerome has inspired me to seek out more on news about the decline of reading, which at times, he believes is overblown. See below for his posting on the Times -Picayune’s decision to expand its coverage of books. This is good news. But now for the not-so-good, but realistic: As I vegetated over the […]

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OK, Jerome has inspired me to seek out more on news about the decline of reading, which at times, he believes is overblown. See below for his posting on the Times -Picayune’s decision to expand its coverage of books. This is good news. But now for the not-so-good, but realistic:

As I vegetated over the holidays, I read with dismay Caleb Crain’s article in the New Yorker, Twilight of the Books. Crain gives an overview of the reading studies, some of which Jerome has already mentioned, but more interesting is the citation of a book about the neurology of reading, Proust and The Squib by Mayanne Wolf. Here’s a Crain excerpt:

The act of reading is not natural,” Maryanne Wolf writes in “Proust and the Squid” (Harper; $25.95), an account of the history and biology of reading. Humans started reading far too recently for any of our genes to code for it specifically. We can do it only because the brain’s plasticity enables the repurposing of circuitry that originally evolved for other tasks-distinguishing at a glance a garter snake from a haricot vert, say.”

Aside from my brain having to process haricot vert as green bean (middle school French for me), I had to grok that reading wasn’t natural. I had never thought about it in those terms since reading is something I do quickly and passionately, but I know so many highly intelligent people who struggle with dyslexia, the “unnatural” makes sense.

Then, I read about the breakthrough for all us when the Greeks commandeered the alphabet and reduced the symbols to 24 characters, and Wolf credits them for allowing us to read more efficiently. This, she says, give readers more time to think. Excellent, I had time to recall my personal journey to learn how to “decline” in ancient Greek. I was terrible at it.

Now for the inevitable, with apologies to Channel 13: Crain mentions more research about TV and how it has re-wired our brains, and that TV takes us back to a time (primal orality) before reading. And so the capacity for reading may diminish more than we know. Alas and alack. To get back to the  ancient Greeks, think of Sisyphus rolling a huge boulder up a mountain of books only to have it roll down again.

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