Proust and the Squid

I finished Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain early this spring, and I have been meaning to revive the blog again periodically for reading notes, so catch as catch can. Initially, I picked up Wolf’s book because I wanted to know how she dealt with the endangered status of reading in the age of the internet, in terms of carrying through as both “story” and “science” of how the reading brain does neurologically what it does. Wolf’s book also figured into Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, and Carr has been drawing attention (on techrhet and from bloggers) more recently following the release of The Shallows. In Carr’s AM article, Wolf was cited as one whose foreboding research insights affirm Carr’s “I’m not the only one” suspicions about the superficiality of reading experiences at the interface. Carr wrote,

Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style
that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening
our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier
technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose
commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere
decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the
rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without
distraction, remains largely disengaged. (para. 8)

I used Carr’s article in the Fall 2008 semester as an an opening provocation for WRT195, a course concerned primarily with Google literacy, but returning to it now as I put together a few notes on Proust and the Squid, small pieces of the passage click much differently these two years later.  First, “worry” is exactly right.  “Worry” nicely sums up what Wolf does with respect to the impact of screens and networked digital media on reading.  At the first mention of reading the Internet, Wolf contemplates the “Google universe of [her] children” and then lists eight or nine worrying questions, e.g., “Can we preserve the constructive dimension of reading in our children alongside their growing abilities to perform multiple tasks and to integrate ever-expanding amounts of information?” (16). Even more striking, however, is the way she follows up the digressive paragraph with, “I stray with these questions.  But indeed we stray often when we read.” The aside is curious, given that straying is one key source of trepidation with “reading” at computer screens: hypertext’s ontology assumes straying.  Yet Wolf is not talking here about reading hypertext or “reading” at/through post-paperdigmatic interfaces; rather, she refers to an act akin to Proust-euphoric reading–sunlit afternoons curled in a window seat or hammock with Remembrance of Things Past. That “we stray often when we read” touches off a couple of by now well rehearsed problems for reading and cognition. It also demonstrates how straying is as much a function of the “text” as of the reader (i.e., Wolf launches the paragraph of questions). The greater concern for conventional reading, then, boils down to the excess of wandering protocols–dementions–in digital read/write domains.

Second, Carr’s repetition of “style” stands out. What does it mean for a “style of reading” to be “promoted by the Net”?  This style puts efficiency and immediacy ahead of other stylistic qualities, perhaps not unlike Will Strunk’s “little book” did when it unexpectedly blazed a trail for school-writerly consciousness in the U.S. with its slick, memorable maxims such as “Omit needless words.” Of course, efficiency and immediacy are not rare values exclusive to wiki-quick or short-form writers of the web, as anyone in news journalism, technical/professional communication, or writing in the sciences can attest. And perhaps stylistic uniformity is cause for concern wherever it settles, although the web can hardly be described as stylistically normative for readers or writers. No matter, by the end of Proust and the Squid, Wolf expresses a compromising stance in the epic showdown between print pages and screens:

In the transmission of knowledge the children and teachers of the future should not be faced with choice between books and screens, between newspapers and capsuled versions of the news on the Internet, or between print and other media. Our transition generation has an opportunity, if we seize it, to pause and use our most reflective capacities, to use everything at our disposal to prepare for the formation of what will come next. The analytical, inferential, perspective-taking, reading brain with all its capacity for human consciousness, and the nimble, multi-functional, multi-modal, information-integrative capacities of a digital mind-set to nod need to inhabit exclusive realms. (228)

Wolf addresses reading the web briefly in a handful of other moments:
16: The paragraph of questions mentioned above.
77: Another paragraph of questions working through what it might mean for a knowledge-as-virtue tradition “to learn very, very quickly about virtually anything, anywhere, anytime at an ‘unguided’ computer screen.”
85: On the “reciprocal relationship between emotional development and reading.”  This is not explicitly about shifts in literacy’s materiality, per se, but the issue is in some respects conspicuous by omission: the scene involves emotional development when a child reads a book (and only a book) on a parent’s lap, not co-navigating a mobile device, gaming together, or reading something online.
132: Privileges a slow, methodical wandering associated with conventional reading; contrasts that with haste and a sense of sufficiency that comes with quick/short encounters. There are a couple of kinds of wandering operating here.
213: In the conclusion now, Wolf restates her valuing of a slow reading and explains differences with Ray Kurzweil’s work on speeding up toward the singularity.
225: Leads into the compromised position above, but also wields strong judgments such as, “Many students who have cut their teeth on relatively effortless Internet access may not yet know how to think for themselves” (225).

I found the Proust and squid metaphors surprising for how disproportionately they are developed in the book.  Proust comes up quite often.  His notion of reading as “sanctuary” is commended consistently by Wolf, idealized even, and this historical “optimum case” for reading cements for Wolf’s celebration of book-reading a formidable and unproblematic teleology–one that makes it much more sensible seeming to bombard interface-reading with wariness. The squid comes up much less often, only twice, in fact: on pp. 5-6 and again on p. 226.  Here is an excerpt from the latter:

In a book devoted to the reading brain it would be easy enough to skip over the contributions of a brain ill-suited to reading. But the squid who doesn’t swim quickly has a lot to teach about how it learns to compensate. This is an imperfect analogy, to be sure, because the squid’s ability to swim is genetic and a squid who can’t swim quickly would very likely die. But if a poor-swimming squid not only didn’t die, but went on to beget 5 to 10 percent of the squid population, one would have to ask what in the world that squid had going for itself that made it so successful despite the missing capacity. Reading isn’t laid down genetically, and the child who can’t learn to read doesn’t die. More significantly, the genes associated with dyslexia have survived robustly. (227)

So the squid who adapts slowly to swim despite its genetic predisposition is analogous to the survivor of dyslexia who copes and in many cases thrives in textually intensive environments (note: dyslexia at the center of Wolf’s research and this is reflected in the book).  But the squid metaphor does not pertain to the calamitous onset of interface-reading, at least not by the book’s design.  Whether or not we should extend the squid’s against-all-odds story to the web is, I suppose, one of the conversations Proust and the Squid would be useful for setting up.

Finally, in an effort to emulate Hipster Runoff’s quizzotic style:
What do you worry about when you read old-fashioned books? When you read online?
Has your brain turned into goo because of Google Buzz, Twitter, or Wikipedia?
How many times did you stray from reading this entry before you arrived at these questions?
Will you buy Nicholas Carr’s new book? Will you teach it in a class?
What about Wolf’s book? Will you read it?
Has your writing style suffered because of the internet? Are you efficient and immediate when you write online?
How much Proust is on your summer reading list?
When you eat calamari do you contemplate whether the squid it came from was a skillful swimmer?