Why We Should Read

Why We Should Read

by Conan the Librarian
(dedicated to Sheri, our family’s resident librarian)

    There’s an argument to be made that the invention of writing was maybe not such a good idea after all. Before it, we each existed inside a circle of what we could see and a sphere of what we could hear, or could hear us. Once we had writing (and hence reading) we had to tune all that out and focus on what’s directly in front of us. It required disconnecting from the natural world, and the logical consequence is that too many of us can’t get our faces out of our mobile devices. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates worried that writing would erode memory, that reading would lead people to believe they had knowledge, when what they really had was data. He said words are to knowledge as a picture is to what it portrays. A brilliant and compelling book on all this is The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, by Leonard Shlain. Was it worth what we had to give up? The question is moot, as writing and reading have been with us for 5000 years. We’re pretty much stuck with it now, unless we move straight on to emoji, in which case we lose language, too. But our brains aren’t wired to read; we have to be taught. That part of the brain that learns to read is the part that processes other objects we see, and eventually develops a 3D image of them. That’s why some children get 3s or capital Rs backwards sometimes. Dyslexics have more of a problem in this area. Okay, now we have our ABCs and a vocabulary. What do we get out of reading? Books!

girl reaching for book

    For beginners, books are probably the most effective means of communicating with the dead. Reading books expands the consciousness, and that’s reason enough. Carl Sagan said books “are proof that humans are capable of magic.” Galileo said it was like having superpowers. Rebecca Solnit: “A book is a heart that beats in another’s chest.” And Thoreau thought of a library as “a wilderness of books.” If more Americans read books, the election of Donald Trump, who is basically a psychopathic 10-year-old, would have been impossible. Reading is part of a good education, the purpose of which is to teach critical thinking. It’s also a great way to pass a rainy afternoon, and new research shows it’s healthy as well.
    Several studies have shown that reading over the course of a lifetime greatly helps prevent age-related mental decline. It’s even been mentioned, along with chess and other mental pastimes, to help stave off dementia and Alzheimers. A 2009 study from the University of Sussex showed that reading for just six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by up to 68%. Reading before bed helps us to relax in preparation for sleep.
    Would you believe there’s is a correlation between reading or non-reading, and crime? Neil Gaiman is an author and polymath (he wrote the amazingly creepy Coraline). He recently gave a speech at the Reading Agency: “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming.” He told about a talk he gave in New York City, on private prisons. They were trying to predict future needs for prison construction, and they ended up using a simple algorithm — what percentage of 10-11 year-olds couldn’t read? Dept. of Justice statistics show nearly 40% of incarcerated people lack a high school education, and the number is much higher with males.
    Maybe the most important thing reading does is to foster empathy, something we seem to have in short supply. Fiction does this best. Scientific American ran an October, 2013 article, “Novel Reading: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” It involved five study groups of between 86-356. The study divided subjects into four groups, each with exerpts to read. Group 1 read genre & pop fiction, 2 literary fiction, 3 non-fiction, and the 4th group did no reading at all. Then they were given tests measuring the ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. Groups 1,3, and 4 had unimpressive results, and the literary group had markedly higher scores.. Gaiman explains that genre & pop fiction tested lower because it often portrays formulaic characters and situations. Literary fiction demands a more psychological connection with characters and their motives, where we have to fill in some of the gaps ourselves.
    To put it more simply, imagine you’re watching a movie or play on TV, or that all to familiar hand-held device. You are watching other people doing things in a set environment. When you read fiction you are a part of the story. You have to imagine the characters and the environment. It introduces readers to different versions of the world, and encourages them to envision alternate possibilities and perspectives. Any kind of escape fiction opens a door, and gives us a place to go where we are in control. I rather like J.R.R. Tolkien’s take on escapism: “The only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.”
    What about books versus their digital counterparts? I have friends with Kindles, and they love them. They also know if they ever give me one I’ll pitch it right back at them like a Roger Clemens fast ball. But again, if you have one, you only need to carry one book around. For me, the feel of the paper, of turning the page, of being able to see how I’ve progressed through it by the position of the bookmark; these are part of the experience. Let’s not forget about audio books, either. They came out in the mid 1980s while I was working at the local library, and were an immediate hit. They still are today, bigger than ever. There is a tradeoff though; like Large Print books they are necessarily abridged.
    There’s another advantage to books. Author Douglas Adams made this point about 20 years before the advent of e-readers, that a physical book is like a shark. Sharks were here before the dinosaurs, and are tough survivors because they’re really good at being sharks. Books are the same way. They’ve extremely durable, hard to destroy, and need no electrical power. They’re very good at being books. They are vulnerable to flames, however.
    Americans are reading less and less. I suppose everyone is, because from a print-based culture we are becoming an image-based one. First there were emoticons, which gave birth to the emoji. Maybe we’ll lose language altogether, being confined to communicate only by sending each other emojis. We’ll be as grown children, like the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Probably the most important reason to read is because it’s our civic duty to not only think critically but to be informed. Our founders insisted that the republic could not endure without an informed citizenry. The way we’re going lately we could end up with a bunch of dumb-asses electing a dim-witted demagogue as our next president. Oh crap — too late. (By the way, he doesn’t read, and it shows)
    There are various theories in the child development about when to teach children to read, even babies. European children don’t begin reading and formal education until around age seven. Their studies have shown it’s more important to extend play and socializing. The American Academy of Pediatrics says the critical factor is not how aggressively instruction is given, but the enthusiasm for learning. So encourage children to read, and let them read whatever they want, so their experience is more pleasure than assignment. Some of my earliest and happiest moments were of my parents reading to me. The first book I can remember reading more or less on my own was “Scuffy the Tugboat,” and from then on there was no turning around.

There are worse things than burning books. One of them is not reading them.

— Russian born American poet laureate Joseph Brodsky


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