More reasons to read


Brain and readingOn the Inside Higher Ed website, Joshua Kim recently asked the question,

When do you find the time and energy to read books?

That surprised me. What energy does reading take? It’s not like running, or swimming or playing sports.

Sitting down in a comfortable chair, cat on the lap, cup of tea at hand, and a small stack of books within easy reach. Some energy to set yourself up for an hour to two’s reading, but hardly any expended to do the actual reading. Well, maybe a little to move the facial muscles into a smile at the sheer satisfaction one gets from such activity.

And at night; tucked in, dog and cats on the bed snuggled up, cup of Ovaltine on the bedside table, small stack of books within easy reach – a quiet hour or so reading before lights out. Winding down from the day gently. No energy wasted at all.*

Putting a book into each bookstand kept on the counter when we have lunch together, on the weekends. Both of us enjoying a peaceful midday break, reading while we eat. No energy at all.

Taking out a paperback to read on the subway or bus during your commute; reading it in the doctor’s office waiting room; sitting on the front porch in the summer evening sun with a glass of wine and a book: effortless.

Reading is not simply something you learn at school, then neglect for the rest of your life – like algebra or Latin. It’s a skill that you use daily, and to use it well, you have to keep sharp and exercised, like a muscle. As a Northwestern University study found, there’s a difference in being a good and a poor reader:

What makes a good reader? First, you have to know how to read the words on a page and understand them — but there’s a higher-level step to reading comprehension. You have to tie together the words over time, maintaining their order and meaning in your memory, so that you can understand phrases, sentences, paragraphs and extended texts.

I would argue that reading more heightens those comprehension skills, just like exercise improves coordination and muscle quality.

Time? I suppose that’s another matter. We each regulate our lives, make time for what we think is important. In my life, reading is, there’s always time for it. Especially since we dropped cable TV.

Given the importance of the printed word on our civilization, culture, politics and history, and on our own state of well-being (see below) I can’t imagine anyone suggesting reading isn’t important enough in their own lives not to dedicate at least a half-hour a day to it.

Of course, your brain burns energy (calories) reading as it does with every activity. But with reading, it improves itself as it does so.

…researchers found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function. Interestingly, reading fiction was found to improve the reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and flex the imagination in a way that is similar to the visualization of a muscle memory in sports.

Reading fiction can be medicinal, too:

Fiction reading can be viewed as a considerable factor in the rehabilitation process for persons on sick leave. This is the conclusion of a new interdisciplinary study from the University of Gothenburg on sick-listed women’s experiences with fiction reading to improve their health, so-called bibliotherapy….
The study shows that the reading relates to an outer, concrete reality and to an inner, more subjectively perceived experience. At a concrete level, the reading helped the women regain their capacity and structure in everyday life. The reading also contributed to a positive self-image and self-understanding via the subjective experience, as well as provided a private space for recovery.

And reading fiction may have longterm, beneficial effects:

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”
Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

Reading also keeps us sharper as we age:

New research suggests that reading books, writing and participating in brain-stimulating activities at any age may preserve memory. The study is published in the July 3, 2013, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
The research found that people who participated in mentally stimulating activities both early and late in life had a slower rate of decline in memory compared to those who did not participate in such activities across their lifetime, after adjusting for differing levels of plaques and tangles in the brain. Mental activity accounted for nearly 15 percent of the difference in decline beyond what is explained by plaques and tangles in the brain.
“Based on this, we shouldn’t underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves and our parents or grandparents,” said Wilson.

Reading keeps our brains nimble. Not like TV, which stultifies them. As Shakespeare presciently wrote:

…we bring forth weeds, When our quick minds lie still;

Blogger Kim also said:

One good library is worth all of Twitter.The collected books in your personal library would make a fair trade for Facebook.

Well, not really. One good library – any library, in fact, is worth more than all of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram combined. The collected books in my own personal library would fill a medium-sized truck and I wouldn’t trade them for a dozen Facebooks. Or a hundred.

Social media is transitory; the posts, the links, the tweets appear and vanish as others pile on top. The effect is magnified with the number of people you have as “friends,” (most of them aren’t, really)  the number of pages you like and people you follow. And it’s all digital: just a bunch of electrons that scatter into the ether.**

A book is around all of your life, assuming you keep it and care for it. I have books in my library that are more than 100 years old. Boy’s Own Annuals from 1909 and 1911 – books my father read when he was growing up. Books published in the 1880s; when my grandfather was young, I have books I bought in the late 1960s and have carried with me ever since. I hope I can pass them along to my grandchildren and that they will respect and love them then as I do now.

I have a page from a book printed in 1503, more than 500 years ago. I don’t have Facebook posts or tweets I made six months ago.

What you saw on Facebook or Twitter 15 minutes ago is likely already gone. Sure, it might be stored on some server somewhere, but you’ll probably never see it again. Maybe it was printed or saved as a PDF. But is a month of your Twitter feed equal to a single sonnet by Shakespeare? Let alone a novel by Dickens, Austen or Thackery?

I can open a book of poetry published in the 1920s and pass it around. I can share books with friends. Will you ever pull out a tweet and share it with others months or years later? Unlikely. Kim says,

If you have the secret to reading more books I’d love to know it.

Personally I think the “secret” to reading more books is: read more books. Period. At that, he launches into his five tips for reading more:

  1. Hang Out With Book Readers;
  2. Stop Doing Other Stuff;
  3. Incorporate Book Reading Into Your Work;
  4. Audiobooks;
  5. Book Diversity.

Number four: audiobooks, is not reading. It’s listening. Great for MP3s when you’re walking the dog or driving. But it’s not reading any more than watching TV is reading. I love audiobooks, myself, and have many, as well as audio courses and podcasts I listen to,  but they are not reading.

I’m not sure how this self-help approach will really help anyone who isn’t already a reader, isn’t already passionate about books.

There are many other websites with lists of reasons to read; all of them compiled by people already committed to reading. So it’s somewhat a moot point, i think, although I agree with most of their reasons.

The Why To Read website has this list of ten reasons to read:

  1. To Develop Your Verbal Abilities;
  2. Improves Your Focus and Concentration;
  3. Readers Enjoy The Arts and Improve The World;
  4. It Improves Your Imagination;
  5. Reading Makes You Smarter;
  6. It Makes You Interesting And Attractive;
  7. It Reduces Stress;
  8. It Improves Your Memory;
  9. To Discover and Create Yourself;
  10. For Entertainment.

The Across The Page website has a list of 25 reasons (not all of which I agree with, by the way), including:

  • To enlarge your world.
  • To learn what can’t be learned in other ways.
  • To know yourself better.
  • To develop empathy.
  • To think!
  • To affirm your humanity.
  • To gain wisdom.
  • To build vocabulary.
  • To make conversation.
  • To rehearse new cognitive pathways.
  • To be transformed.

The Open Education Database lists these effects of reading on your brain:

  1. We make photos in our minds, even without being prompted;
  2. Spoken word can put your brain to work;
  3. Reading about experiences is almost the same as living it;
  4. Different styles of reading create different patterns in the brain;
  5. New languages can grow your brain;
  6. Your brain adapts to reading e-books in seven days;
  7. E-books lack in spatial navigability;
  8. Story structure encourages our brains to think in sequence, expanding our attention spans;
  9. Reading changes your brain structure (in a good way);
  10. Deep reading makes us more empathetic.

Number two is interesting because it runs counter to my understanding of the effect of audiobook listening versus reading. The writers say, “…research has shown that the act of listening to a story can light up your brain. When we’re told a story, not only are language processing parts of our brain activated, experiential parts of our brain come alive, too. Hear about food? Your sensory cortex lights up, while motion activates the motor cortex.”

So I need to do a bit more research to get a better understanding of the importance of oral stories and storytelling.

Number seven, too, is intriguing and opened a path of thought I hadn’t considered about e-books. I don’t have an e-reader, by the way, although as a techie geek, I’ve been tempted by them for years now (I’ve been putting my money into real books and ukuleles instead). But when or if I do get one, it has given me food for thought as to how to evaluate one.

A simple Google search brings up hundreds of sites with their own lists of reasons to read. As I said, the sites mostly seem to be preaching to the converted, since few actually deal with how to get non-readers engaged with books and reading.

Sure, I agree with them, for the most part. But heck, I don’t need any more reasons to read. Owning a single book would be all the reason I need.


* As Psychology Today tells us:

One of the problems of watching television is that it reduces theory of mind. Theory of mind (often abbreviated “ToM”) is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.

** Yes, I understand the irony of blogging about the impermanence of digital content.

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  1. Speaking of reading, I am currently working through two very different novels (among my many on-the-go books): Will Ferguson’s 419 and William Makepeace Thackery’s Vanity Fair. Where Thackery’s prose is rich and flowery, with complex and lengthy sentences and sometimes florid descriptions, Ferguson is sparse and crisp, with many incomplete but potent sentences.

    Thackery’s characters are painted with fine strokes – many vivid details – so you get to know a lot about them from their dress to their eating habits; details that are necessary today for the reader to imagine the early 19th century life. Ferguson’s get a broader brush – more dialogue than detail – but they’re still fleshed into reality because the modern reader can fill in the blanks easily enough.

    Both are full of references that, to the writers, were contemporary landmarks, people and events. But with Thackery, I have to peer through the footnotes to understand many of them.

    Both are good, enjoyable novels, but very, very different. Both tackle larger issues, too: society, culture, international politics, gender roles, racial roles; and each reflects the values of their times.

  2. Interesting article in The Guardian posted to me by a subscriber to my blog:

    Poll: How do you organise your home library?
    A survey says most UK readers follow no coherent logic to arrange their books. Do you?

    I’ll say “semi-coherent” for mine. Large chunks are arranged by topic or author (a shelf for Chaucher, a shelf for chess books, a shelf for Shakespeare, a shelf for Gnostics, one for poetry, one for Machiavelli, a couple for music books…) but the majority are placed on the shelves helter-skelter. Or more likely, a book gets placed in a relevant location then moved as I pick it up to read, then return it to another location.

    This isn’t all bad: it means I have to review a lot of titles and search a lot of shelves to find it again, so I am constantly reviewing my collection.

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