Book Review

Reading in the Brain:  A Guest Review by CarrieS

B

Title: Reading In The Brain
Author: Stanislas Dehaene
Publication Info: Penguin 2009
ISBN: 978-0-14-311805-3
Genre: Nonfiction

Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We Read This not really a review, it's more of a report.  I'm in the middle of reading Reading In The Brain:  The New Science of How We Read.  I wanted to let the Bitches know about this book, as it is the ultimate meta reading experience for a nerd.

However, I haven't finished reading the whole book – and in case you're wondering why I don't just write the review when I'm done with the book, it's because clearly this is a book I'll pick up and put down for the rest of the year, and I hate to make the Bitches wait around for me to finish chapters like “Toward a Culture of Neurons” in between reading chapters of the oh-so-much-more engrossing webcomic I Was Kidnapped By Lesbian Pirates From Outer Space  (really – go on, click on the link – it's AWESOME!).

Stanislas Dehaene is a cognitive psychologist.  In The Number Sense, he examined how people develop a way of perceiving and thinking about numbers.  In Reading in the Brain, he talks about what happens in the brain while we are reading – and what this means in terms of things like how reading and writing was developed, how the experience of reading varies between languages, how reading separates us from other animals, how it affects and is affected by culture, etc.

Reading In The Brain is written accessibly enough for a layperson such as myself to follow.  It's very well organized and clear.  However, its purpose is education, not entertainment, although it's written with enough anecdotes and in a sufficiently conversational style to avoid being dry.  It's far more academic that most of the science I read, hence my taking a very long time to get through it.  I don't intend to make it sound dull as the topics covered are fascinating – check out the passages regarding pure alexia in the chapter “The Brain's Letterbox”.  Amazing stuff!

Of special interest to me is the chapter “Learning to Read”.  In this chapter, the author examines what happens neurologically when we are learning to read, and what science tell us about the best way to learn.  I learned to read through what is commonly described as “The Whole Language Approach”, which is where you grow up surrounded by books and the next thing you know you have magically learned how to read and are sitting in kindergarten reading the Little House on the Prairie series.  Alas, I seem to have been something of an outlier, because in general the author is scathing about the whole language approach and claims that science is overwhelmingly in favor of phonics – which I have to admit worked for my daughter when the words from her book collection failed to magically crawl into her head.  So, if you have an opinion abut phonics, or you want to develop an opinion about phonics, this is your chapter!  There's also a lot of information about dyslexia and other learning and reading disabilities.

I'm not sure it's fair or ethical to assign a grade to a book without having read every single word, but I feel pretty confident giving this book a solid B, with the caveat that only those who really want lots of detail about reading and brains need give this book a shot.  The biggest problem with assigning it a grade before finishing it is that for all I know, the author may suddenly start making wild and unsubstantiated claims that discredit the whole book.  However, this seems unlikely.  The book is clearly meticulously researched, with an extensive bibliography.  While I'm sure stuff comes up that is theoretical or controversial, I'm fairly comfortable assuming that it is at least well thought out based on the substantial portions of the book that I have finished.   Let the nerds among us enjoy!


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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Olivia Waite says:

    I read a lot on the philosophy of reading in grad school (my hoity-toity masters thesis involved a lot of baseless speculation about how time works in fiction/the reading brain) and always wanted to get more material from the science side of things—thanks so much for telling me about this book!

  2. 2
    Niki says:

    Thanks for posting your review, as this sounds fascinating and I plan to pick it up ASAP (as well as his book on numbers).  I’m interested generally, but I will admit that I am particularly interested in his section about learning to read, as my toddler will be embarking on that path quite soon.

    One minor point: You’ve misspelled his name in paragraph 3.  I wouldn’t mention it, but it complicated my Google search.

  3. 3
    CarrieS says:

    Oops, so sorry Niki, I’ll fix it now.  Thanks for the heads up!

  4. 4
    RabidReader says:

    Oh boy, I’m do going to search this one out. It sounds right up my alley. I’m a neuroscientist but I specialize at the synaptic level so I love reading books on cognitive studies for lay people. My only parenting book has been “What’s Going On in There?”. Highly recommended for nerds with little ones on the way or here. My favorite nerd baby gift.

  5. 5
    CarrieS says:

    Try Alison Gopnik, when I had my daughter I really liked her books about babies and brain development.  The book i read by her was “The Scientist in the Crib” but she has more recent ones.

  6. 6

    Sounds like a great read for when I’m feeling like reading “smart” instead of “trashy”. Meanwhile I’ve just spent the past hour on lesbian pirates from outer space.

  7. 7
    Hillary Wade says:

    Oh, I learned to read just like you…and Little House on the Prairie was the series of books I read between ages 5 and 6. I pretty much skipped picture books and went right to chapter books, and there are still words that I know what they mean but don’t always pronounce correctly :)

  8. 8
    CarrieS says:

    @Hillary – I know exactly what you mean!  I can’t pronounce words worth a darn and my spelling is horrendous as any reader of my comments can attest to, but I was downing a chapter book once every 1 – 2 days by the time I was 5 and never stopped. 

  9. 9
    Zulma says:

    I learned to read practically on my own because I was constantly moving between Puerto Rico, the US, and Europe with my Army dad and family. I guess that’s the whole language approach.  Learned words that I still mispronounce. It’s funny because I teach high school English. Thanks for the review! I enjoyed reading it like I do all of your reviews. The book sounds fascinating. Look forward to reading it.

  10. 10
    CarrieS says:

    Aww, thank you Zulma!

  11. 11
    Carrie Gwaltney says:

    Teaching my five children to read was both wonderful and stressful. Between each child I research and read and bought new books and programs to help me do it “better” next time. They all learned to read eventually (one by 6 and one was almost 9) and I learned something very important—children, even closely related children, are all such individuals in tastes, temperaments and learning styles that it’s probably impossible to use the exact same method to teach them anything, much less how to read. :-P

    I used a phonics-heavy approach and it worked well for the most part, but one child needed to learn a base of sight words first, and then learn the phonics to explain it all and help him decode unknown words. And, since I home schooled and the children were home with me all day, I read aloud for hours every day—fiction and non-fiction. (As an aside, three of my children are fairly avid readers, but two only read books occasionally. Goes to prove no matter what the “experts” say, children are individuals who defy “programming.”)

  12. 12
    Susan says:

    Thanks!  This is now on my wishlist.

    I have no real recollection of *how* I learned to read.  I wasn’t from a family of readers, but my mom did read to me.  No kindergarten, and before the phonics movement, but I somehow learned to read well enough to start school a year early.

  13. 13
    Tonya says:

    I’m another English teacher who is horrid at spelling and pronouncing words!  I learned to read before Kindergarten from my grandmother’s romance novels!

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