‘Dyslexia is our best, most vivid evidence that the brain was never wired to read,’’ writes Maryanne Wolf, and she’s got the word on why. Wolf is director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts and a professor of child development. She also has a son Ben, who went to the Rhode Island School of Design, draws like a dream - and is dyslexic. But more to my purpose, she’s the author of a madly fascinating book called “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’’ (Harper, 2007).
The book contains great, thought-provoking sections on dyslexia - an umbrella term for a variety of reading difficulties, by the way, not just scrambled letters. It also arc-lights the latest research on how our brains turn and catch on letters and words. It took 2,000 years for the human race to mature from grasping concrete symbolic systems like hieroglyphics, for instance, to abstract ones like the alphabet. Now it takes roughly 2,000 days for a child’s brain to arrive at a place where reading makes sense. And it’s not because of some “reading gene.’’ It’s a matter of new circuits being laid down in those areas of the brain mainly used for recognizing objects and pulling up their names. Children are wired for sound, as cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker says, “but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.’’
For dyslexics, that bolting is full of glitches. Wolf chutes us through the different suppositions for why they occur: everything from a time delay in taking in syllables and letters to the idea that dyslexics don’t have the same neuronal connections in the “reading part’’ of their brain as fluent readers. Neuroscientists are focusing their attention on Area 37 in the crucial occipital-temporal region. I’m boiling this way down, but what seems to happen is typical readers make connections between the front and back of the region, while dyslexics make connections between the right and left, which are less efficient pathways.
My husband taught a student who struggled mightily with dyslexia in high school - but was also an exceptional chess player. It turns out this is a classic twofer; dyslexics must constantly strategize around their disability, and many also are highly skilled at forming pictures in their mind. Both are useful tools for chess and other activities: When it comes to the job world, dyslexics are most likely to be scientists, computer programmers, artists, entertainers, entrepreneurs, architects, and other vocations requiring boldness and visual imaginations. In fact, some argue that the greater the disability, the greater the talent. “In the Mind’s Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics, and the Rise of Visual Technologies,’’ first published in 1997 (second edition, Prometheus Books, 2009), even mentions one renowned non-dyslexic researcher at the National Institutes of Health who worries he “was not dyslexic enough’’ to do work as original and creative as his dyslexic colleagues.
Author Thomas G. West, who is dyslexic himself, carefully lays down the anecdotal and scientific evidence of this disability/hyperability coexistence. The list of dyslexics amazes: Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, George Patton, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Robin Williams, Richard Branson. In our day, there’s Jack Horner, a path-breaking paleontologist who claims it’s easy for dyslexics to think outside the box - because “they have never been in the box.’’ To that end, dyslexia shouldn’t be “fixed.’’ Besides, in our era of spellcheck and calculators, maybe it can be worked around with less anguish.
Maybe. But to children who are dyslexic and their tirelessly-advocating parents, this sounds cruelly utopian. Shirley Kurnoff’s “The Human Side of Dyslexia: 142 Interviews with Real People Telling Real Stories’’ (London Universal, 2001) is blunt on the toll. The kid with ulcers and anxiety attacks, the boy who hides in the school bathroom until the bell rings, so no one will see him go into the special ed class. The mom who voice-records chapter after chapter of textbooks for her daughter, and the parents who wrestle with school choice. It’s a moving rendition of accommodation, struggle, and spine.
But even more moving - because each hard-earned word is laid down with such care - is “My Dyslexia’’ (Norton, 2011) by the Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Philip Schultz. (A poet-dyslexic? Yes, and so was Yeats.) It wasn’t until he was 58, when his young son was diagnosed with dyslexia, that Schultz realized this was the taproot of his own stinging school experience. “It feels as if I’m meeting myself for the first time,’’ he writes. Then he casts back on his childhood. “I never meant to be annoying, forgetful, delayed, overwhelmed and dumb-sounding and -looking,’’ he writes. The book is unstinting on his sadness, his shame, but also his persistence and the acuity of his unconventional mind. At age 15, on a cold winter’s day, he finally feels the joy that reading freights in. The vehicle is Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer,’’ and for the first time in his life, he read “without realizing I was reading.’’ Which, of course, is the beautiful point of it all.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.