When Christ founded the Church, he used oral tradition and didn’t have St. Peter transcribe the Sermon on the Mount.

A significant transition has taken place since then. Information moves faster than ever. Search engines can provide answers in seconds. Texting is cheap and common, and a cell phone and e-mail allow people to telecommute.

There is another transition taking place. Though information flows faster, what has happened to attention span? Register correspondent Justin Bell had a conversation with Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University, about her book, “Proust and the Squid — The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.”

Through a series of epiphanies experienced during a volunteer year of teaching in rural Hawaii, shortly after her undergraduate years at St. Mary’s and Notre Dame (South Bend, Ind.), Wolf decided she wanted to fight illiteracy instead of teach poetry.


The title of your new book, Proust and the Squid, is quite engaging.

I want the reader to think. One of the whole points of the book is to truly go below the surface. So you actually have to read the first chapter to figure out the title’s meaning. I don’t even put it on the flap, so people can’t find out from there. The reality is, Proust is a metaphor for what is, I believe, the very heart of the reading act. And I use Proust because he wrote a tiny little book called On Reading, in which he said, “By an act which means that nobody can receive the truth, but that we must create it ourselves, the end of the author’s wisdom is but the beginning of ours.”

Now this quote written by Marcel Proust, the great French novelist, is really about what the reader, the expert reader, learns to do. They learn to read so quickly, so effortlessly, so full of the stuff of words, that they have time, literally, from a neuroscientist’s viewpoint, literally extra milliseconds to think their own thoughts, to go in new directions, to have creativity and insights that they’ve never had before. So the Proust in the title is about the generative quality at the heart of reading.

The squid analogy is a little quirkier. In the 1950s, neuroscientists used the long axon of the squid to study how a neuron communicates, and this long axon of the squid was an amazing resource to study how the central nervous system works, to study how something works even when something goes awry. So they could study how it repairs itself.

Well, these days we don’t use the squid. We use other things, including worms and rats and genes. But we, in cognitive neuroscience, use processes like reading or numeracy, to study how the brain learns something new. In essence, the squid is an analogy for how we use things outside the brain to study the brain. And so for cognitive neuroscience, reading, which represents something entirely new, is like the squid. And what’s so beautiful about the study of reading is that it literally allows us to watch the brain rearrange its original parts to learn something new. So reading is a fantastic squid.


Cinema, television and now the Internet, with websites like YouTube, have made our society more and more a visual society. How has that affected reading, and where should we go from here?

That’s one of the No. 1 questions in the whole book, and it’s never answered. It is a serious question, and I believe that there’s little that’s more important in this moment in our life than to understand, appreciate and to be very careful about the role of technology as it truly punctuates, almost every hour, sometimes every minute of our lives.

I believe that from the 1800s ’til now, you have this exponential growth of knowledge machines, things that have made our lives, our health, our longevity change in ever more positive ways. And much of what we see is for the better, the betterment of our species.

But there is a down side, and the book is really asking some very fundamental questions about how reading is changing and will change further as technology accelerates its pace. And by that I mean that many of our children are learning to read more from the computer and certainly reading more on the computer than they are in other forms of presentation.

Now that in and of itself has some cautionary aspects for me, but what I want to suggest to you, and I do in the book, is that after basically five millennia of growth of the reading brain as we now know it, it’s an extraordinary entity. The expert reading brain has really evolved, changed, transformed itself to the point where so much of the heart of reading — back to Proust — is about going beyond what went before.

In a presentation form like most digital ones of computer screens, so much is given and so quickly, so immediately — literally — that children have neither the time nor the motivation to go below the text, to go below the knowledge, or to go beyond the knowledge that they see.

So many times their response is, “I’ve Googled it, I know about it, I know it all now.” That is what I consider the Socratic nightmare of today’s society, because children can become more and more surface readers, decoders, but not true comprehenders, not people who are thinking critically.

Now I ask all these questions and I don’t give answers. But I do give an approach. What I want is to preserve what is most precious about this evolved reading brain as we know it, and have that be the starting point for the developing brains of our children.

In other words, after we teach that young brain the preciousness of our own expertise, then the child can spend as much time (maybe not as much time) but a fair amount of their time on computer screens. Before it happens, I want a well trained expert reading brain really in process.


In my day-to-day life, I have to answer e-mail, check websites, answer my cell phone, respond to text messages, and I find that reading oftentimes is more challenging than it used to be: My attention span seems to have shortened. How can I improve my reading skills?

It takes time, and it’s the irony, or the paradox, of our modern lives, that all of these tools that were to make our life more efficient have in fact enslaved us, and in many ways.

If I think about the e-mail that I am receiving just because of this book, it has quadrupled. So I’m very pessimistic about gaining the time that it really takes to have leisure reading, reading that will improve our lives.

I certainly know that in my own life I try to preserve the last hour of every day, every night, for reading, to transport myself away from the minutiae, the tedium, the freneticism, the obligations of my life which are like everybody else’s.

So I think one of the answers to your question is that we must preserve time and that, in and of itself, when connected to reading, is a very simple formula.

The more we read, the more varied we read, the better we read. And the better, I believe, we can reflect upon virtue itself.


Justin Bell is based in Boston.