Proust and the Squid

I’ve been enjoying the wonderful Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf the last few weeks. I’m almost done with the book (it is one of those books that I will regret finishing) and highly recommend it if you are interested in the brain, reading, or learning in general. One of my favorite quotes is about, of all people, Socrates (p. 78):

In the last analysis, Socrates lost the fight against the spread of literacy both because he could not yet see the full capacities of written language and because there would be no turning back from these new forms of communication and knowledge. Socrates could no more prevent the spread of reading than we can prevent the adoption of increasingly sophisticated technologies. Our shared human quest for knowledge ensures that this is as it must be. But it is important to consider Socrates’ protests as we grapple with the brain and its dynamic relationship to reading. Socrates’ enemy never really was the writing down of words, as Plato realized. Rather, Socrates fought against failures to examine the protean capacities of our language and to use them “with all our intelligence.”

Though there were many things in this segment of the book that I found fascinating, learning that Socrates was against the development of reading and writing was certainly the most surprising. Ms. Wolf’s comparison of his perspective on reading to the adoption of technology rang particularly loudly with me as someone who deals with the use of technology on a daily basis.

It is hard to imagine what the world would be like without the art, history, and communicativity of the written word, one of the most profound technologies ever developed and certainly one of the hardest to learn. I’m confident that many of the tools that we see evolving today — and which many people are reluctant to adopt — will be taught in the kindergarten of the future, right along with the alphabet.

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One thought on “Proust and the Squid

  1. Nicholas Carr references the same discussions in Plato in _The Shallows_ and cited the Wolf book as well. Thanks for the recommendation.

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