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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Every Book Its Reader
As the season for gifts comes around, I have a simple rule of thumb: when in doubt, give a book.
Perhaps that’s passé for some tastes. Even in the world of libraries, it has become common practice to downplay books. Afraid for funding and chasing the mysterious relevance, we celebrate community connections, technology training, job-hunting aids, programming, digital access, meeting space. All of these are wonderful reasons why libraries matter, but I’m still loyal to the gal who brought me to this dance. I celebrate libraries first for books because they make our lives better in so many ways. Books are the gifts that keep on giving.
Now I suspect as a Booklist reader that you’re already perched next to me as we ride this bandwagon down the street, waving to the crowd in our bibliophile parade. Still, this bears repeating. Let’s see how many of reading’s benefits I can cram into one page.
Start at the beginning. Reading builds vocabulary faster than direct instruction (as shown in a Cal-Berkeley study). Through reading, we also learn how to put sentences and paragraphs together. We improve our ability to comprehend any other subject. We build focus, concentration, and attention span. We enhance memory skills and forge new synaptic connections. Reading is the gateway to all other learning and communication.
We read to connect, to gain cultural and contextual literacy, discovering all the ingredients, the tiny facts, the shared idioms, the stories and symbols that add depth and flavor to the rich stew of our cultures. We read to create social bonds, the complex connection that comes when you and I both know the same book. While books connect us with our own cultures, they also open the rest of the world. The right book is the passport to any country, any time, any field of endeavor. Reading expands our reach beyond the cages of our bodies, our economics, our social classes. An endless array of vicarious experiences waits for us on the page. An Emory University study shows how novel reading changes the brain: reading about an activity can biologically activate and map the same neural connections as actually doing it.
We read to understand others, to walk in their shoes. Reading is an empathetic virtual reality, as gifted authors take us inside the heads of full-blown characters. Fiction readers were shown, in Dutch studies by Bal and Veltkamp and in York University studies, to have higher levels of empathy with others. A Kingston University study showed that frequent readers are also kinder than those who don’t read.
Reading heals and strengthens. We read for therapeutic value, as a way to understand our flaws, to cope with our obstacles and losses. Books are full of examples of how others muddle through, even when faced with problems larger than our own. We can model their successes, avoid repeating their failures. A Sussex University study found a 68 percent reduction in stress among readers, a better result than listening to music, drinking a cup of tea, or even taking a walk.
Reading has other health benefits. A University of Glasgow study indicates that reading, combined with therapy, has a positive effect on depression. Reading books improves sleep patterns (but only in print, not with backlit screens; sorry digital readers). Research published in Neurology found that the mental stimulation of reading can stave off memory loss and slow the aging of the mind. Readers are 2.5 times less likely to develop dementia, according to a study by Robert Friedland. A long-term study by Yale University even found that, adjusted for other factors, those who read more than 3.5 hours per week were 23 percent less likely to die over a 12-year period than their nonreading counterparts.
Reading frees our imaginations and at the same time stokes real-world change. We have all, at times, sought the escape of reading, the chance to get “lost in a good book.” Through books, we can even go beyond the limits of known experience into the future or the past, into fantasy worlds, into heavens and hells. Conversely, reading can also inject us more completely into our real world. Books are the catalyst to discussions that spur change, the building block upon which movements can be built. Reading encourages reflection and leads to epiphanies, the aha! moments that come from the perfect story, the perfect image, the perfect phrase.
Reading is cheap and ubiquitous. Because of libraries, access to free books in several formats is available to people of all economic stations. We can fit books into any part of our day—in the quiet morning for the early riser, over lunch in a crowded café, after the kids’ bedtime for the harried parent, or as an island of calm in a worried night for the weary insomniac. Reading recovers value from life’s boring moments—an audiobook for the commuter, a digital book in an unexpected line, a large-print book to ease eyes while bouncing along on exercise machines.
So readers’ advisors, stand your ground! Pack up the ugly and wrongheaded “musty old books” descriptions, the “warehouse” metaphors. Libraries and their books are evergreen, a simple kindness in an age of cruelties. Make yourself a gift in this harried season, and sit down for an hour with a book. It will quietly make you into a better, healthier person.
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