One of life’s pleasures is on the decline, Reading

 

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

One of my life’s pleasures, perhaps an addiction, has been reading. I can remember reading from a very early age. In fact, I used to use  a torch and read under the covers long after the lights were out and I was supposed to be asleep. I am sure my parents knew I was a “secret  bed reader”. I was forever running out of torch batteries.

Whilst at secondary school, I managed to work in the school library, helping to manage the school library. Yes, the school had a proper library, stuffed full of fiction and nonfiction books. Hundreds of them. Every term, the heads of departments would put together an order for books, send it off and they would duly come in. My “job” was to catalog them. Cover the jackets with the clear plastic, similar to the stuff parents still use today for their children’s text books. Then place the books on the shelves, ready to be borrowed. I had the pick of them and devoured books by the dozen. I would take home two or three at a time. Read them and return them.

When I left school, my passion continued. I would buy books as often as I could afford them. Sometimes new and sometimes second hand. Science Fiction. Horror. Thrillers. Crime. Whatever took my fancy.

Whilst at university, I would read in their library, mostly New Scientist magazine and books on technology. As you can imagine, I was a “book worm”. Completely consumed by them. In fact, I still am.

Perhaps that is why my imagination has always as vivid and clear as it is. Active would be an understatement. I can see images in three dimensions. In colour. In full motion. I can imagine being part of  conversations and dialogue. I can be associated and be part of the story. Or I can observe the story from afar. My mind has always been filled with movies. 

A few years ago, we moved house and the new place does not have as much space for my books as the old house did. I took the decision, that after all those years, to pass on some of my book collection. After many trips to the local Oxfam book shop, I handed over to them in excess of 500, yes, 500 books. And I still have three bookshelves full. I still read nearly every day. And at weekends, I will sit and read for a few hours.

I have just finished reading a fascinating book, called The Wisdom of Psychopaths, by Doctor Kevin Dutton. A section of the book grabbed my attention and prompted this post. In the book, he shared some research carried out by Jeffrey Zacks, Professor of Psychology & Professor of Radiology and his team at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory, Washington University, in St Louis, USA.

With the aid of fMRI scanners, the team peered deep inside the brains of a group of volunteers as they read stories. What they found was an intriguing insight into the way our brains construct our sense of “self”. Changes in the stories characters locations [e.g. ‘they went into the house from the street, or got into a car and drove away’] activated areas of the brain associated with spatial location. Changes in the stories characters and how they interacted with objects [e.g. they picked up a pen] produced similar responses in the region of the brain associated with grasping. Finally, and most important of all, changes in a character’s goals elicited increased activation in the prefrontal cortex which helps control personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. Our imagination, really affects our brain.

The conclusion is as follows: When we read a story, our level of engagement with it is such that we “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in the narrative” and literally change the neural pathways in our brain. Reading changes how we think and react to situations. TV does not do this. Nor does reading on the internet. It is the in-depth reading of a book – whether physically or via an electronic device, that is the key. The research also points to the fact that for some people, certain books or stories will have a more profound impact on their lives. If you read, what is your favorite author? Your favorite book? The one that has the most impact on you? For me it was George Orwell’s 1984. It is my absolute favorite.

So that is the good news. The bad news is that as a culture, reading is on the decline. Potentially terminal decline.

The number of children who say they love reading books for fun has dropped almost 10% in the last four years, according to a US study, with children citing the pressure of schoolwork and other distractions. In fact reading amongst young children and teenagers has dropped every year since 2005 when surveys were started to measure the levels of reading in young people.

Only four in 10 children said they read daily in their own time when the first survey was carried out in 2005. That figure is now around three in ten or even less. The research found that young people were shunning books in favour of TV – 54% of those questioned said they preferred watching TV to reading.

I will leave you with this final thought.

The research has pointed out the people who read stories, become more attuned to those around them in daily life. They exhibit higher levels of empathy and connectedness to other people. Whereas for those that don’t read, they are more “me, me, me” fixated. More selfish and less likely to help others.

If you believe that the world is becoming more selfish, perhaps we should encourage people, especially the young to read more.

 

I leave you with the following quote and since it is a Friday, a funny one:

 

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx, The Essential Groucho: Writings For By And About Groucho Marx

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