The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Twilight of the Books…is the end near?

I read an interesting article in the New Yorker concerning the history and future of reading for pleasure. Ong and his theory of secondary orality are discussed in the article, but the work of Maryanne Wolf caught my eye (or my mind?). Here is an excerpt of  a section which made me think of this week’s readings and Ong’s theory that literate minds would not think as they do were it not for the technology of writing:

 “The act of reading is not natural,” Maryanne Wolf writes in “Proust and the Squid” (Harper; $25.95), an account of the history and biology of reading. Humans started reading far too recently for any of our genes to code for it specifically. We can do it only because the brain’s plasticity enables the repurposing of circuitry that originally evolved for other tasks—distinguishing at a glance a garter snake from a haricot vert, say.” (Crain, 2007,¶8)

If this is true, what are the long-term effects of such repurposing? Will we lose the ability to recognize garter snakes?  😉

I am of the opinion that the brain did not “rewire” to adapt to reading, but instead grew (created new connections, new synapses) from literacy. I suppose this could be what Wolf considers “repurposing”, and I admit I have not read her book. However, I don’t think our brain is rerouted resources from one area to another. I think our brains slowly formed new and effective pathways of thought.  What do you think?

(There is a nice discussion citing Ong and secondary orality in the article too!) Erin

Crain, C. (2007). Twilight of the books. The New Yorker. Available online 29, September, 2009, from

1 comment

1 Jeff Miller { 09.29.09 at 2:21 pm }

Hi Erin,

I read Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid last summer, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to delve into how neuroscience approaches the question of writing and reading.

Wolf’s interest in the topic of reading is particular personal, as her son is dyslexic. She pursued her interest in dyslexia to conduct a series of studies using MNR imaging to determine sites of activation in the brains of people who are literate and people who are dyslexic. Based upon this research, she contends that the brain is re-wired, or particular circuits for the processing of information are formed as a consequence of literacy. Interestingly, the pathways developed by those who are dyslexic are hardly inferior to those who are literate. They are different, involve different parts of the brain, and may well be an element in the creative genius of many artists who were also dyslexic. Her book is well worth the read and germane to many issues raised in this course.


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