Reading and the brain, and “brain scans”

There’s a new book out about what happens in our brains when we read, which may appeal to people interested in accessible accounts of neuroscience, as well as to those of us who are watching the shift from paper to electronic reading.

Reading in the brain : the science and evolution of a human invention
Stanislas Dehaene. (New York : Viking, 2009)
ISBN: 9780670021109 – Description: xi, 388 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm.


I put a reserve on it at the library and am waiting for it to arrive. In the meantime, I found that the author has put all the color figures online along with short chapter summaries. The imbalance on the webpage between text, and the diagrams and brain maps, makes the book look more forbiddingly technical than it is, I hope. Unfortunately the book on Amazon doesn’t have the LookInside feature, so we can’t look at more of the text. Reviews have been mostly positive (links to several, on author’s page; Barnes and Noble review) though one was critical of the book’s accessibility for us “interested lay readers”:

Unfortunately, he needs to lay a lot of groundwork. This makes the first 100 pages of the book an excruciating slog. While it picks up after the first two chapters, the book still sometimes slips back into detailed explanations of neurophysiology. Dehaene is first and foremost an academic, and he seems to want to make his work defensible to his peers even as he tries to explain it to laymen. This is especially problematic in his diagrams. Rather than helping to clarify points, his visual presentations are almost always overly technical, presenting formulas and pictures of the brain that are difficult to decipher. Part of the problem is that images are all black-and-white. While he offers up full color versions on the book’s website, that’s only useful to readers who are also regularly consulting their computers. …The result is a work that requires focus to read, but rewards the effort.

It is disappointing that, according to this reviewer, the images in the book are not in color like those on the web. This reminds me of a book I looked at recently on the various branches of our early human-ish ancestors, in which maps to locate the various hominid species were poorly done or not there at all. Publishers try to cut corners and end up crippling the book. But I hope that won’t be the case here, and even if parts of it are over my head I look forward to the exploration.

I’m expecting a stimulating mix of actual established neuroscience, conclusions based on new research still open to interpretation, and informed speculation. After discussing how, he believes, reading (including our writing systems) developed in response to our neurological structures—“over time, scribes developed increasingly efficient notations that fitted the organization of our brains”, Dehaene applies the same theory to other areas of human culture: “Mathematics, art, and religion may also be construed as constrained devices, adjusted to our primate brains by millennia of cultural evolution.”

Cautions about fMRI (brain scan) studies: What a fish can tell us

I don’t know how much of Reading in the Brain relies on fMRI data, but many of the popularized “this-is-how-your-brain-works” revelations do rely heavily on brain scans, including fMRI, and we’re seeing some push-back from other scientists. A study at Dartmouth (reported by Wired, and Science News) found that a salmon’s brain had “a beautiful, red-hot area of activity that lit up during emotional scenes [photos put before the salmon’s eyes]”. Wow! Unfortunately for all but the spiritualists among us, the fish in question was dead. Apparently the neural activity that showed up was random, and more rigorous statistical analysis of the data revealed this. While many popularizers, especially in the general media, give the impression that brain scan interpretation is cut and dried, the truth is quite the opposite.

Less dramatic studies have also called attention to flawed statistical methods in fMRI studies. Some such methods, in fact, practically guarantee that researchers will seem to find exactly what they’re looking for in the tangle of fMRI data. Other new research raises questions about one of the most basic assumptions of fMRI — that blood flow is a sign of increased neural activity. At least in some situations, the link between blood flow and nerve action appears to be absent. Still other papers point out insufficient attention to insidious pitfalls in interpreting the complex enigmatic relationship between an active brain region and an emotion or task. (Science News)

Michael Shermer, founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American, gives an excellent presentation of how fMRI works and why “bright spots” in the brain don’t necessarily tell us much of anything. His article (pdf) , “Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us”, is as technical as it needs to be but won’t give you a headache. A more technical but still readable article by Edward Vul et al., “Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition” examines one major source of errors in brain scan analyses. [There’s a short summary here at, if you want to skip the technical details, and an interview with Edward Vul at]

So while the area known as “social cognitive neuroscience” is fascinating, and we all love quick and easy explanations, remember that much of what you read in this area is, like the lottery, best used “for entertainment purposes only”.


More free books for kids: Portland, Oregon

Last month I blogged about giving away books to kids at our local food pantry. It’s been an effective way to encourage reading in kids of all ages, and provide parents and grandparents with books they can read with the children. All kids should have books of their very own. I wrote the post hoping to encourage others to get involved in getting books and children together.

As a former Portlander, I am pleased to report that there’s a group in that city dedicated to gathering books and giving them to disadvantaged kids. It’s called The Children’s Book Bank and they are currently concentrating on children under 6, when early habits are formed. They’re doing some creative stuff: one way they gather books is by inviting those who want to help, to have a book drive through their own organization, which could range from Boy Scouts to church to a business or hiking group. They also muster volunteers to help clean and mend books and bundle them up. If you live near Portland, visit their site and think about how you could help.

This offers one model for those who’d like to form an organization for the purpose, as well as for one-time group efforts to gather books and then donate them to some existing organization. I guarantee your community has organizations that would welcome clean usable children’s books. These would include Head Start programs, shelters (ones for women and children, or for homeless families, or for kids on the street), social agency waiting rooms, daycare facilities run by non-profits, Ronald MacDonald Houses, maybe the local Boys and Girls Club. If it’s a place that serves disadvantaged kids or families, they can probably find a good use for your kids’ outgrown books or books your group can gather in a book drive.

And, if you want to do something on your own, like I’ve been doing–showing up each week at the food pantry for 3 hours with a carful of books and two folding tables, I can attest to it being easy, well-received, and very rewarding. I’ve also gotten to read some great kids’ books as I sit by my tables!

Here is a figure from The Children’s Book Bank site:

“Two thirds of low-income families own no books for their children.”

Let’s all do something to change this, now!

Free books for kids at the Food Pantry

“Free Books for Kids” says the sign that I put up every week at the local food pantry. The boxes of books, and two small folding tables, live in the back of my old Explorer.



quickly becomes this


When I began several years ago I was thinking it would be like a library or book exchange: kids would return the ones they chose last time and get new ones. It didn’t take long to understand the shortcomings of that model. Mostly, there’s too much turnover and uncertainty. Families are only permitted 12 visits a year to the food pantry (a state or federal limitation); they might come three weeks in a row and then not return for months. Some live in cars, campgrounds, or at a series of friends’ houses. And families vanish, moving elsewhere for various reasons or (we hope) experiencing an improvement so that they don’t need the food pantry any more. Kids forget to bring things back. I can’t turn away needy kids that want books; my desire is only to get books into the hands of young people, from infants to high schoolers.

So now my little “Book Bank” (like a “Food Bank”) is as simple as can be. Free books for kids whose families come to the food pantry. Period. I say, “You can bring them back whenever you’re done, or keep them forever.”

That’s the only way it will work, and it also gives kids books of their very own. A dozen favorite books don’t take up much space and may be a help to children who move a lot, and live with constant change and uncertainty.


I had expected my “customers” to be kids and parents, but grandparents have turned out to be an important group too. Some care for grandchildren regularly (or are raising them), some have kids staying over in summer, visiting on weekends, or just dropping in. A few aunts and uncles come by also. Occasionally these books are given by the adults as birthday or Christmas gifts to the kids.


I’ve expanded to include workbooks (printing, arithmetic, shapes and colors, word recognition, etc.) and flash-cards.


This isn’t the Baby Einstein scene, grooming kids for prep school or to impress the parents’ rich friends; the parents and grandparents want their kids to be ready for school, and to do well there. Despite all the worries a family has when they need to come to a food pantry, most of these adults are actively working to help their children succeed in school. And I know the parents read to the children because the kids themselves tell me so.


Cardboard books for infants and toddlers are popular. These sturdy books have bright simple illustrations; parents can point out colors, shapes, animals, noses and ears as the babies are learning language (long before any actual words come out). Children learn how to hold a book right way up, turn the pages, and be comfortable with a book in hand. They get a positive association with books and reading, to go along with the good feelings of being read to from all sorts of books––as well as from being sung to, talked to, and all those other forms of language that flow between adults and young children.


The books are arranged by age of likely readers: in addition to the bins of cardboard books and workbooks, there are two big plastic boxes: one for picture books and simple books, another for longer books with longer words. “Chapter books” (a new term that I learned from the kids, who ask for them that way) go in a smaller box; these are short to medium-length novels for readers up through high school.

Chapter books2.jpg

Except for the workbooks, I regularly read books from all of the categories while I am sitting alongside my display. There’s some very good writing, and of course the illustrations are often wonderful. Kids’ books must be putting bread in the mouths of quite a few artists. That’s a good thing especially with art in schools having been virtually eliminated; at least children get to see paintings, drawings, and photographs with artistic merit and heart.

Where do the books come from? and other details

Most come from the bookstores operated by Friends of the Library, at local branches and also in Portland (OR). Locally I pay 25¢- 50¢; Portland has higher prices but a huge selection. Twice a year I go there and buy maybe a hundred books, stocking up on the ever-popular dinosaur picture books, ones on science and nature, and others that are hard to find. Then there are garage and yard sales where sometimes kids’ books go for a few bucks per cardboard boxful. Once in a while I find suitable new books at the Dollar Store, where I buy all the workbooks and flash-cards. And occasionally people (at the food pantry or elsewhere) donate books outgrown by their children. I could be more active in soliciting such donations, something to work on.

After I acquire books I do a little processing. I wash the covers and spines with a damp rag and 409 to remove grime and make the books look shiny and more appealing. A few may need a bit of mending, for which I use clear packaging tape. Then I stamp each one inside the back cover: “Free Books for kids/at Ruch Food Pantry./To donate kids’ books/or $ pls call xxx-1234.”

One reason for the stamp is to help books come back, although few do. I have an informal arrangement with the local branch library: if books with my stamp arrive in their bookdrop, they save them for me. That offers a much more accessible return location than the food pantry which is only open 3 hours a week.

Our food pantry is a small one; we average 20 to 25 households each week, though lately it has been getting busier. There are many households that don’t include children. There are times when I go home without having given out a single book, and days when I have half a dozen eager customers. When people arrive I haven’t seen before, I go over and introduce myself; even if there aren’t any children accompanying them, there may be kids at home, or grandchildren in their lives. If kids hang back shyly I talk to them and their parents and invite them to come and look. A lot of these kids are quite wary of how much things cost, so they need reassurance that yes, all the books are free (even though some have old price stickers from the places where I got them). And I let my customers know how pleased I am that they came, which is just the truth.

And when someone comes over to tell me that the books have made a difference—their grandchild is reading better, their kids are enjoying the books or benefitting from the workbooks, do I have more books about horses or dogs because their daughter just loves to read them—well, you can imagine how good that is!

And now, why did I write this?

Only one reason: I’m hoping someone may read it and decide to do something similar. The Food Pantry connexion is a good one, and the project doesn’t take a lot of time. Your Food Pantry or similar organization would probably welcome this addition to their services. “Food for the mind, as well as the body,” was my pitch, but the idea didn’t really need a “pitch” to be accepted. Or perhaps you just have books your kids have outgrown: consider giving them to the local women’s shelter, where women and children often arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and may stay for weeks. Library Friends’ bookstores always welcome donations, and offer cheap books to the community (with proceeds used to support library activities and services). And libraries or schools may need volunteers to read with kids or to kids.

If you’re looking for an organization to get involved with, there seem to be a lot of them. Maybe your area has one like SMART (Start Making A Reader Today) in Oregon that pairs adult volunteers with early readers, to improve children’s ability and their love for reading. There are many local and national groups concerned with kids and reading; I googled “kids reading organizations” [do not use quotation marks if using this as a search term] and came up with a bunch. Look for evidence of actual work done, not just raising money and promoting “awareness of the issue”.

“Give me a place to stand, and I can move the earth.” So said Archimedes, who did not invent the lever but gave the “earliest known rigorous explanation” of how it worked. There are many such places to stand, for anyone who wants to change the world a bit. The promotion of reading for kids, in a direct personal way, is one of them.

Little Blue Books


Before Project Gutenberg, there were Little Blue Books. Before paperback books (not pamphlets, but books) came along in the 30’s, there were Little Blue Books. My remaining library of them is shown above, and below are a few with a paperback of the same period.


“Little Blue Books” was the popular name for a series of tiny publications printed on pulp paper, with slightly heavier paper covers, by E. Haldeman-Julius between 1919 and 1951. Emanuel Julius was the son of Russian immigrant Jews; he said his life was changed when, as a boy, he got hold of a 10 cent publication of Oscar Wilde’s grim poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and read it straight through oblivious to the freezing weather in which he sat. At that moment, he thought “how wonderful it would be if thousands of such booklets could be made available.”

All of us who were bookworms in childhood can identify with that experience. I don’t remember much of my youth but I can still recall exactly where I was when I read the end of To Kill A Mockingbird: sitting on a log in some neighbor’s front yard, having put the paperback in my pocket before setting out ostensibly to take the dog for a walk. And on a difficult bus trip to San Francisco, I buried myself in the Little Blue Book of Macbeth and came across the encouraging lines “Time and the hour/run through the roughest day.” I was on the bus with my parents, but seated separately; they were barely speaking to one another, having had another of the fights over my father’s extreme stay-at-home habits–this one followed by “Well, maybe you’d like to go to San Francisco (about 40 miles)?” “Driving and parking there is too awful.” and so on, until we ended up a silent trio on Greyhound.

I still have that 15-cent copy of Macbeth, and most of the other LBB’s that I acquired. The titles in this line included a lot of classics, not just because they were copyright-free, but because Haldemann-Julius had an agenda: a mixture of the classical, the progressive, and the useful.

Here’s a sampling of titles [my apologies for such a long list, but, I confess, when I started looking at the lists on the Penn State Axe Library site, I found it hard to stop selecting examples!] :

1a. The Ballad of Reading Jail, by Oscar Wilde. First Edition. [Cover title.] People’s Pocket Series. [1919] [

1b. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Second Edition. [Cover title.] People’s Pocket Series. [1919]

3a. Walt Whitman’s Poems. [1920.]

17c. On Walking, by Henry David Thoreau. [1921.]

60a. Emerson’s Essays. [1920.]

90c. The Mikado, by W. S. Gilbert.

94a. Trial and Death of Socrates. [1920.]

95a. Confessions of an Opium Eater, by Thomas De Quincey. [1920.]

60a. Emerson’s Essays. [1920.]

140a. America’s Prison Hell, by Kate O’Hare. [1920.

1001. Tales of Italian Bandits [by] Washington Irving. [1927.]

1002. A Dictionary of Sea Terms [by] Frank Wells. [1926.]

1003. How to Think Logically [by] Leo Markun. [1926.]

1004. How to Save Money [by] J. George Frederick. [1926.]

1005. How to Enjoy the Orchestra [by] Isaac Goldberg. [1926.]

1006. A Book of Children’s Games [by] Grace Perkins. [1926.]

1008. The Origin of Religion [by] Joseph McCabe. [1926.]

1009. Typewriting Self Taught [by] Miriam Allen DeFord. [1926.]

1010. A Handbook for Amateur Magicians [by] George Milburn. [1926.]

1011. Pocket Dictionary, English-French, French-English [by] Vance Randolph. [1927.]

1014. The Best American Jokes, edited by Clement Wood. [1926.]

1017. Without Benefit of Clergy [by] Rudyard Kipling. [1926.]

1019. Bluebeard and His Eight Wives [by] Clement Wood. [1926.]

1020. Why I Am an Infidel [by] Luther Burbank. [1926.]

1021. Italian Self Taught [by] Isaac Goldberg. [1926.]

1022. An Odyssey of the North [by] Jack London. [1926.]

1162. Mystery Tales of Ghosts and Villains [by] Montague Rhodes James, Katherine Rickford [and] Charles Dickens.

1163. The Policewoman’s Love-Hungry Daughter and Other Stories of Chicago Life [by] Ben Hecht.

1177. Woman and the New Race [by] Havelock Ellis.

1178. The Chorus Girl and Her Lover’s Wife and Other Stories [by] Anton Chekhov.

1179. How to Make Desserts, Pies and Pastries [by] Mrs. Temple.

1182. How to Make Your Own Cosmetics [by] Gloria Goddard.

1183. How to Play Checkers [by] W. Patterson.

1185. The Weather: What Makes It and Why [by] Clifton L. Ray.

1186. A Handbook of the Rules of Golf, compiled by Harold Dix.

1188. Sex and the Garden of Eden Myth, a Collection of Essays on Christianity [by] Maynard.

1189. Pin Money: One Hundred Ways to Make Money at Home [by] Gloria Goddard.

1190. What Price Love? [by] Anton Chekhov.

1286. Do Human Beings Have Free Will? A Debate: Affirmative: Professor George Burman Foster, Negative: Clarence Darrow.

There are some patterns here: how-to and self-improvement, progressive politics and “free-thinking” about religion and society, and, of course, plenty of titles containing the words “love,” “sweetheart,” and “sex.” But there are also the large and small lights of Western Literature: Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, O. Henry, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Balzac, Ibsen, Mark Twain, Rabelais…there seems no end to Haldeman’s inclusiveness, until one thinks that a complete set of Little Blue Books would make the ideal accompaniment to a desert island existence. And cheap, too; in the beginning they retailed for a nickel; by the early 1960’s the price was all the way up to fifteen cents. So the 39 titles above would have run you a total of $1.95 at a nickel apiece, $5.85 at 15 cents.

Haldeman published some works he’d written himself, including

1287. Brann, Who Cracked Dull Heads [by] E. Haldeman-Julius.

1288. America’s Fakirs and Guides, Surveying the Leaders and Misleaders of Our Day [by] E. Haldeman-Julius.

The Brann of LBB 1287 was William Cowper Brann (1855-1898), an opinionated American journalist and newspaper owner who attacked aspects of religion, social pretense, and anything else that roused his ire. He died in Waco, Texas, after being shot in the back by a man who objected to his vituperative editorials about Baylor College; Brann turned and shot his attacker dead before walking to the jail, from which he was soon released. He died the next day.

I encountered Haldeman’s magnum-opus-in-small-pieces early in my teens. I was questioning religion and social conventions, fascinated with adventure tales, and lived with my nose in a book. Mostly I went to the library, but Little Blue Books were portable, full of surprises and oddities, and felt in some way personal. I must have bought them by mail, because I never remember seeing one in a bookstore or on a drugstore book rack. I now know that J. Edgar Hoover had mounted a campaign against Haldeman and his publications in the 1950’s and forced most bookstores to stop carrying them. The Little Blue Book series was, in its day, “edgy”: marked by progressive politics, including socialism, and consideration of forbidden topics like free love, homosexuality, evolution, birth control, and women’s rights. You can see that a cranky repressive guy like Hoover couldn’t allow such pollution of the American intellectual landscape.

Despite J. Edgar, 300 million Little Blue Books were published between 1919 and 1978, so I suppose those who blame our moral decline on things like Pokémon and gay marriage can just add Haldeman’s smart-alecky elitist smut to their list.