The Brain and the Document
Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development, provides us with a very different glimpse into writing and reading and the development of culture. In her Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of Reading Brain (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), Wolf examines how reading changed brain functions from the ancient world onwards and speculates about how our present immersion into the digital world might be bringing additional changes. Her focus is more on the biological and cultural rather than the cultural and historical, and the result is a very different kind of contribution to the literature on reading texts and other documents.
Wolf contends that “from the contemporary perspective of our own unfolding changes in documentation, the story of reading offers a unique documentation of how each new writing system contributed something special to our species’ intellectual development” (p. 25). And, as she concludes, Wolf argues, “As literacy became widespread in a culture, the act of reading silently invited each reader to go beyond the text; in so doing, it further propelled the intellectual development of the individual reader and the culture. This is the biologically given, intellectually learned generativity of reading that is the immeasurable yield of the brain’s gift of time” (pp. 216-217).
Along the way we find some very different readings of the origins of writing, shifts from orality to literacy, and interpretations of the utility of various writing systems. We will gain much in our understanding of records systems and their importance (and future) as well.