Reading, Writing and Memory


Read more books than blogs“Memory,” he read the headline as he settled into the armchair, resting his elbows on the wide arms to expand the National Post paper to its fullest, “declines much slower in people who read, write throughout life.”

Ah. Interesting. He peered closer.

“Reading books, writing letters and working on crossword puzzles throughout life may help preserve the brain’s memory faculties and fend off Alzheimer’s disease and early-onset dementia, according to a recent U.S. study published in the the journal Neurology.”

Hmmm. Well, of course. We knew that, he chuffed to himself. Coming from a family of avid readers who lived long lives, and remained pin-sharp into their final years, you notice these things. His mother, for example, well into her 90s, could still remember clearly events from her youth. Names, faces, no problem recalling them.

She learned to use a computer only a few years ago. Had her own laptop, on wireless, no less. Used a cell phone, too and sent text messages to grandchildren, snapped photos for family. Sharp old lady, no flies on her.

Of course, she was still reading voraciously even today, although perhaps not as much as when she was younger. Fewer choices of books, in a nursing home. Too dependent on donations and leftovers. Castoffs, many of them, yard sale titles with bent corners and cracked spines. But still reading. Doggedly reading what was at hand.

His late father – his last days spent wasting away in a hospital bed, eaten by cancer, shrivelling into a husk – read the paper daily until the end. Book by the bedside, on that ugly but utilitarian wheeled cart they put your dinner and box of tissues on. Reading right until the end. What became of that book? Couldn’t even recall what the title was any more. A reader until the lights went out.

Dad’s brain was sharp too, never dulled even by the pain, although sometimes distracted. Asked a question of the dutiful son visiting that summer, a few weeks before the end: is it better to die in dementia, not knowing what was going on, or with all your faculties knowing exactly what was happening?

Alert to the end, was the answer the son gave, although he wasn’t sure if that was what had been wanted. Or if he had been correct. But without alertness, without consciousness, how could one read? No book by the bedside without the faculties to read it. How would one pass the days, in that horrible place, without a book?

Would he wish that upon himself? Emptiness? Or spend his last days in agony, facing death, trembling hand holding Julius Caesar or King lear for a last read? “This fell sergeant, Death, is strict in his arrest,” said Hamlet.

And who would not want those to be the final words you read? Instead of, say, the closing words of Jersey Shore? A book dies every time you watch that dreck. So does a part of your brain.

A minimum of five hours a day of TV filled with canned-laughter sitcoms, scatologically-obsessed cartoons and heavily scripted, yet surprisingly talent-less “reality shows” have proven to keep the brain active, healthy and boosted memory performance well into the golden years.

Said no study ever. Yet Canadians watch, on the average, 30 hours of TV a week. Thirty hours watching a piece of furniture.

That may be dwindling, as the number of hours online creeps up. Thirty one hours a week on the internet, for Canadians under 25. Sure, some of that is reading and writing, but in an environment that rewards brevity, ignores style, grammar and spelling, and is more concerned with cute pictures of kittens with mis-attributed quotes than actual content, well…

Well, it meant he was not aging gracefully, as gracefully as he once thought he might. You go from youthful passion and folly to old curmudgeon, bypassing the station called wisdom entirely. Wait a second, Mr. Conductor, wasn’t my ticket good for at least a rest stop there?

Apparently not. Well, perhaps as Polonious said, brevity is the soul of wit. That must make Twitter the wittiest platform of them all. He snorted in derision.

He squinted at the TV set as if it were somewhat malevolent, like a troll or goblin of uncertain allegiance, waiting silent, and dark until it could come on loudly with the evening news. Flood advertising into the home, one after another until the viewer twitched with agony and lost all connection with the show they interrupted. Flickering madly, the screen demanding attention from every angle.

You know, he said silently to the brooding set, back in the 1930s when you were invented, few people thought you had any real future at all. You certainly fooled everyone, didn’t you?

He crinkled the paper towards the afternoon light from the living room window, and turned back to the story, avoiding the black glare of the TV.

They picked apart the brains of the people in the study, it says. After they were dead, of course. Too messy the other way. The scientists peering into the grey, wrinkly flesh, flaccid like a failed blancmange in the stainless steel pan, looking for some physical attributes that gave weight to their hypothesis. The deus ex machina, the proof book-agnostics need to believe.

And they found it.

Examining different levels of plaques and tangles in the brain, researchers found that mental activity accounted for a 15% slower rate of cognitive decline. In fact, there was a 32% reduction of cognitive decline in people who engage in frequent mental activity in late life. The rate of decline in people who don’t participate in metal activity was increased by 48%.

Writing letters, the study noted, along with reading. A positive, mentally-beneficial association between writing and brain activity, he smiled at that.

All his life he had been driven by a passion for writing in parallel with that for reading. A need really, like air, sex, sleep and red wine. He barely went a day, even this late in life, without tapping out something on the laptop. Half-finished books, stories, blog posts and feature articles filled folders on the hard drive. Still had days when the night crawled over the town and the lights faded, when he would be up late, typing, ever correcting, ever polishing, ever honing. tap, tap, tap on the keyboard like the soft drumming of little elven feet.

Half of it never saw the light of day. More than half, probably. Done to feed the monster inside that demanded his attention. Write, write dammit, it called. And he did, slave to its incessant howl.

But like any addiction, it fed as much as it feasted. Lighting up the dopamine receptors, opening the floodgates of endorphins, the sweet joy of finding that just-right combination of words that, when read together swept the reader in a transport of delight. The subtle play of noun and verb, adjective and noun, adverb and verb. Partners in a dance, competing yet cooperative.

Scripturient, he had been once called. A violent desire to write. A graphomaniac. Obsessed with writing. And a bibliomaniac. Crazed for books and reading. The pile of in-progress books on the coffee table attested to that.

There are worse things to be called in life. Aboulomaniac. Cacodemomaniac. Catapedamaniac. Gamomaniac. Planomaniac. Plutomaniac. Theomaniac. Peotillomaniac. Oenomaniac. Well, that last one was at least partly true.

Or perhaps the proper suffix is phile, not maniac, he corrected. Oenophile. Lover of, not obsessed with. Well, he supposed it depended on the time of day, the day of the week and the bottle of wine itself. A deep zinfandel, ruby rich with overtones of cherry and plum. Legs in the glass like prancing thoroughbreds. Tannins that held onto the tongue with an explosive after-flourish that made one sigh with pleasure. Sipped in the late summer evening, warm and quiet. One could easily be a maniac not merely a phile at that moment.

Cynophile, too. Or is it canophile? Never can keep those two straight. Ailurophilie. Turophile. A good pairing with oenophile. And most assuredly a bibliophile.

In his youth, those hormonal halcyon years between puberty and university, he had been somewhat of a gynotikolobomassophile. But that was long gone. Ended, really, when he bit into an earring and swallowed it. Years ago. Cracked tooth, rough edges still to be felt with the tongue. A small reminder of wildness, like that single weed you leave grow in the corner of the garden.

Youth, youth. The follies and fantasies of youth. Dreamed of being a veterinarian, a paleontologist, an astronomer. Something with an A-to-B-to-C career path that ended with a pension and some certificates on the wall. Ended up a writer instead. And where, he chuckled, was the future in that?

In books, of course. Books that would help keep the demons of dementia at bay. Sudoku and crosswords were supposed to help, too. He was glad he had quit smoking many decades ago. Rots your brain, the scientists say nowadays. Dr Simon Ridley, from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: Greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia in smokers.

Filthy habit. Turned the fingers yellow. The teeth yellow. Turned the walls yellow. Pages of books yellow,too. No way to treat a book. Do what you want to your own lungs, but spare the books. Books are better. Reading is better than smoking. Not safer, mind you: books carry ideas and ideas spread like fire on the prairie.

Books overthrew governments, changed laws, pulled people out of slavery and oppression. Books told stories authoritarians would suppress. Books transported readers to other worlds, let them fly with dragons and walk distant planets. They coddled, they warmed, they held the reader’s hand and gave comfort when the world was ungainly and rough.

Books, they were the answer to the brain mystery. That’s what those scientists discovered.

Not even those fancy supplements, bottles of pills and potions, vitamins, oils, minerals, herbs. Promising miracles, longevity, enhanced health, the sexual performance of a stallion – they were just – well, wishful thinking if one wanted to be charitable. Codswallop and snake oil if not. And one seldom felt charitable towards corporate PR.

Reading saved the old cranium from imploding, not pills.

Reading actually changes your brain. It’s the foundation of all learning.

The discovery that our brains are physically changed by the experience of reading is something many of us will understand instinctively, as we think back to the way an extraordinary book had a transformative effect on the way we viewed the world. This transformation only takes place when we lose ourselves in a book, abandoning the emotional and mental chatter of the real world. That’s why studies have found this kind of deep reading makes us more empathetic, or as Nicholas Carr puts it in his essay, The Dreams of Readers, “more alert to the inner lives of others”.

This is significant because recent scientific research has also found a dramatic fall in empathy among teenagers in advanced western cultures. We can’t yet be sure why this is happening, but the best hypothesis is that it is the result of their immersion in the internet and the quickfire virtual world it offers. So technology reveals that our brains are being changed by technology, and then offers a potential solution – the book.

Rationally, we know that reading is the foundation stone of all education, and therefore an essential underpinning of the knowledge economy. So reading is – or should be – an aspect of public policy. But perhaps even more significant is its emotional role as the starting point for individual voyages of personal development and pleasure. Books can open up emotional, imaginative and historical landscapes that equal and extend the corridors of the web. They can help create and reinforce our sense of self.

Without books, well there would be no Shakespeare. No Chaucer. No Jane Austen. Dickens. Tolkein. Unthinkable. Not even Harry Potter or that miserably bad 50 Shades without books. No Hollywood knock-offs, either. No BBC dramas. Well, he might have to – grudgingly – accept a place in his heart for BBC TV. Proof that TV wasn’t all bad, all a waste of time. Sadly unavailable in Canada, but available on DVD or online for a modest fee.

The BBC – on DVD, not the abysmal BBC Canada parody – was the main reason the TV was still in the house. But beloved as its dramas are, they are not quite up to the level of books, although he graciously granted that their later renditions of Dickens certainly captured the spirit of the author, while clearing up some of the confusions inherent in serial writing.

A world without books was unthinkable. Like a world without sun or air. You’d live like those eyeless, white salamanders in the caves, without books. Or like some subterranean blogger, spitting out invective from a basement.

Unthinkable, too, that people would not read, given the books available, and their proven medical benefits. And free, too, if you just go to the library. Who can turn down the gift of consciousness?

Who, he wondered, who would say to the wife, “Dear, I’ve decided to waste my precious time, time I can never get back, staring at a piece of furniture with moving images most of my free time. Instead of exercising my cerebellum so I don’t end up in the home strapped to a bed to keep me from wandering into the street or hurting myself, I plan to watch television for mind-numbing hours on end until I fall asleep here on the couch.”

What, he wondered, would the doctors make of those brains, picked open after death for analysis? “See this dark area, Greasley? All that plaque, those creeping lesions, those hollow spaces that once held active, vital neurons? That’s Duck Dynasty. This dead section over here, that’s American Pickers. And this rather large abscess is Holmes on Holmes. These smaller lesions are, I believe, Swamp People and Ice Truckers. Ghastly stuff, I tell you. Brain has entirely shrivelled, down to the size of a small puppy’s. A chihuahua puppy at that.”

“My library,” said Prospero in The Tempest, “was dukedom large enough.” A world, indeed a galaxy lies in those books. He knew that feeling. And what was it Lord Saye spoke in Henry VI, Part 2? “Ignorance is the curse of God/Knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”

Books. Of course we know they keep us smart. Of course we know they keep us from the gates of dementia’s hell. You could have just asked me, and not wasted all that time to get that answer.

He harumphed and turned the page. Bibliophile is a good name to be called.