Wolf (Child Development/Tufts Univ.) rehearses the history of reading, reviews the latest research in what our brains are doing while we read and summarizes what’s known about the complexities of reading, including causes of and remedies for dyslexia.
Regrettably, she conveys this useful information in off-putting prose assembled from an ill-assorted variety of components. The most oppressive, costive academic jargon rubs elbows with expressions of gee-whiz, ain’t-this-amazin’ enthusiasm. Exclamation points pop up like dandelions on virtually every page, and the author affixes gushy adjectives to the names of many of the authorities she cites, such as “the brilliant neurologist Samuel T. Orton.” (All Wolf’s sources are “brilliant” or “great” or “gifted.”) Also, it’s embarrassing when the author of a work with “Proust” in the title refers to the narrator’s childhood memories being triggered by the smell of a madeleine in the famous scene from Swann’s Way; it was the taste. Despite such stylistic excesses and factual lapses, the author does a creditable job of explaining reading’s complexities. Reading is such a relatively recent human activity that the brain has not evolved to accommodate it, she reminds us; as a result, all children must learn “from scratch” this incredibly complex perceptual and intellectual process. Wolf also effectively summarizes the most relevant brain research. She sensitively discusses dyslexia, including some cases in her own family, and convincingly argues that it is often a number of problems that create the disability. She worries about the increasing number of language-impoverished children arriving in the public schools; she wonders about the effects on our culture and our democracy of generations who have spent far more time viewing Internet images than reading pages of text.
Wading through a sticky swamp of jargon, readers will here and there find a flower of insight.