This proverb, attributed to Menander in a Byzantine collection, points to the simple paradox of reading: readers are able to see both the shape of letters and the meaning conveyed by them. How does mind get from visual recognition to the recognition of meaning? The step sounds incredibly simple when we make it, but becomes exceedingly complex to explain. Strangely enough, the step is not executed in the same way for all languages and scripts.
The ability to recognise shapes must be assisted by the interpreting activity of specific parts of the brain. A famous nineteenth-century medical case tells the story of a ‘French Businessman and amateur musician who woke up one day to discover that he could barely read a word’; as a consequence of a stroke, he could ‘no longer read words, name colours, or read musical notes, despite having completely intact vision’ (Wolf (2008) 171). Vision is thus a necessary but not sufficient requisite for reading.
Different systems of writing make use of different parts of the brain. Another case tells us yet again about a businessman ‘proficient in Chinese and English’ who ‘suffered a severe stroke in the posterior areas.