Non-Fiction Reviews

A Very Short Introduction

(2019) Margaret J. Snowling, Oxford University Press,
£8.99 / Can$21.00 / US$11.95, pbk, xix + 147pp, ISBN 978-0-198-81830-4


You may be wondering why a website into science and science fiction is reviewing a book on dyslexia?  Well, there are a number of reasons, including:-
          - dyslexia is by some considered a fiction and not a science factual phenomena.
          - dyslexia relates to perception, and SF in part is a genre of altered perceptions
          - dyslexia affects a surprising many
          - and psychology is a science, even if it is one we do not often cover.

In addition, I must declare my interest early on in this review: I have had my own early reading and writing problems.  Indeed, throughout my life I have had problems with words and learning. (This may explain for some why the text in a proportion of the SF² Concatenation site is in obvious (if not dire) need of a proof read.)  For me, Microsoft bringing out new systems every other year, and radically changing key aspects of them every half a decade, is not just an inconvenience but a positive pain: my own PC at home still runs on Windows XP (but is physically isolated from the internet in case you have the urge to hack it).  For me, international travel to a non-English speaking country is something I actively avoid unless I am met by a local or there is a clear, simple route from the airport to my final destination. And if there isn't, I need a workaround. So, for example, then I went to Stockholm I Google Street-View walked in cyberspace a couple of times the one-and-a-half miles from the station to my hotel and university conference venue rather than use the underground; the strangely named stations were simply and completely incomprehensible to me: they could have been written in ancient Greek for all the good they did. You're talking about a person whose first O-Level (former British 16 year-old school qualification) attempt at French was so bad that my score was not just a 'fail' but 'unclassified' and I had to re-take it every spring and summer each year, improving my result grade by grade until I scraped a pass in the year I was doing my A-Levels. As it happened, that was the year that half UK universities dropped the O-Level requirement of a modern foreign language for prospective science undergraduates. (I suspect that Prof Sir Paul Nurse might possibly understand.)

Margaret Snowling has provided a valuable introduction to dyslexia: a syndrome whose causes we still do not understand with certainty but which can be diagnosed with some accuracy for a good proportion of those affected but, as Snowling explains, not all as those from disadvantaged backgrounds have their socioeconomic setting masking the condition.

Margaret Snowling does an admirable job of introducing the subject of dyslexia, focussing on its manifestation in young children, possible causes, and some early coping strategies. This is as much as can be expected from a short booklet: that's why this OUP series is called 'A Very Short Introduction…'

As such, this booklet makes for a highly useful, early (it is short and cheap) port of call for worried parents that their child is unduly struggling to read and write: do they have a dyslexic problem or could it be that they have strengths marginally skewed elsewhere and/or they have a poor teacher or a poorly resourced school?

And in the course of typing that last sentence I typed 'skewed as 'squewed' but thank goodness for the Microsoft Word package automatically highlighting my error. This brings my to my final point. There are  workarounds.  People who discover I have my 'little problem' are often/invariably surprised: after all, I write reports and occasionally even books (thank goodness for professional copy editors and proof readers). And for over a decade I sometimes have done initial copy edits of others' work: though never ask me to do a final copy edit, and proof reading (a quite separate a skill) is simply beyond me. However, we do have things like MS Word. Typing (which is very common in today's home PC age but was rare back in my childhood 1960s) is a godsend. There are other hacks, and practice, practice, practice helps greatly.  Lastly, do not despair. It is also possible, at least in part, to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. If someone who does have a problem understanding words and writing can comprehend something, then they are in a very good place to explain it to others: hence my career in science communication.

And for children with reading problems, comics are a great stepping-stone to books. (Though be aware, it could lead to a lifelong interest in SF/F.)

Margaret Snowling has not had the space in her booklet to cover any of points I have just raised in the preceding two paragraphs. For this reason I beg OUP to commission a companion booklet, perhaps titled Living with Dyslexia: A Very Short Introduction? This is too important a topic that affects many millions worldwide.

Jonathan Cowie


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