Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Many nations – above all Catalonia, where streets in Barcelona fill with stalls – celebrate the day of the book on 23 April. That is the feast of St George, also the patron of England, and the reputed birth- and death-day of its greatest author, William Shakespeare. So when does this country mark "World Book Day"? In early March. Go figure.

Mis-dated or not, Britain's World Book Day still does some sterling work. Nothing in its calendar matters more than the "Quick Reads" initiative that, each year, issues short and accessible books meant for reluctant or "emergent" readers. This uplifting scheme finds room for the stories of well-known figures who have found it tough to join the reading family. For WBD 2008, The Hardest Test by Welsh rugby star Scott Quinnell (Accent Press, £1.99) movingly relates both his long battle with dyslexia and the joy, after treatment at the Dore Centre in Cardiff, of finding that he could read books and enjoy them. "I'd gone through school being called a failure, so much so that I'd begun to believe it." He escaped his prison. Many never do.

A story such as Quinnell's should remind blasé literati of the daily miracle of reading. Then they should stiffen their resurrected sense of wonder by turning to Maryanne Wolf's book Proust and the Squid (Icon, £12.99), subtitled "the story and science of the reading brain". Wolf is a cognitive researcher in Boston who happens to have a dyslexic son. Everything about her book, which combines a healthy dose of lucid neuroscience with a dash of sensitive personal narrative, delights – apart from that over-fancy title. At least it does, correctly, suggest that Wolf twin-tracks humanistic and scientific approaches to the evolution of reading, both in the species and the child. George Eliot and Socrates, Tolkien and Dostoyevsky, meet Broca's area and the angular gyrus – along with the other back-offices in every cerebral HQ – in a beautifully balanced piece of popular-science writing.

"We were never born to read" – but to understand humanity's fairly recent acquisition of this art is to grasp how the brain, amazingly, adapts to fresh tasks and challenges. "The brain's design made reading possible, and reading's design changed the brain." Wolf begins with the history of writing, from Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics through "logographic" modes such as Chinese to the fast-track reading permitted by the phonetically exact Greek alphabet. Simpler systems speeded up learning, spread literacy and gave readers "the secret gift of time to think".

Then she charts each stage on the reader's road to fluency, as kids learn to perform this "profound cognitive miracle". A close-up account of word recognition slows down the "500 milliseconds of fame" during which we register meaning. She explores new ways of thinking about dyslexia, and gently courts controversy with the idea that "digital natives" who read on screen at speed, simply to gather information, may lose sight of the precious "invisible world" – of context, allusion, overtone – that rewards a reader who lingers over words.

Could reading purely in digital media, and not in print, damage our capacity to appreciate "irony, voice and metaphor"? Nobody can yet know. Still, Wolf looks with some trepidation into "the Google universe of my children". She makes a case that in literature, as in life, "the rest, the pause, the slow movements are essential to comprehending the whole". If so, then perhaps the campaign for slow, real food requires a sister mission to foster slow, real reading too. As publishers scamper into the digital age, this is one message that they won't be promoting on 6 March: don't just pick up a hunk of dead tree, but switch off your screen for the day.

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