The acquisition of literacy transforms the human brain. By reviewing studies of illiterate subjects, we propose specific hypotheses on how the functions of core brain systems are partially reoriented or 'recycled' when learning to read. Literacy acquisition improves early visual processing and reorganizes the ventral occipito-temporal pathway: responses to written characters are increased in the left occipito-temporal sulcus, whereas responses to faces shift towards the right hemisphere. Literacy also modifies phonological coding and strengthens the functional and anatomical link between phonemic and graphemic representations. Literacy acquisition therefore provides a remarkable example of how the brain reorganizes to accommodate a novel cultural skill.