My mother taught me to read simple sentences by the time I was three. And from then on I was required to read a book a week, any book but it had to be challenging, until about the 7th grade. When I started getting homework, my mother stopped giving me hers. I read Huckleberry Finn at least twice when I was eight. That book had a profound influence on me. I also read Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels before I was 10. I loved that book. In 2nd grade I was reading at a 6th grade level. My mother lived to be 96, and near the end when I would visit she would always ask, “What book are you reading?” Mom, wherever you are, this week I am reading To Show and To Tell, The Art of the Personal Essay by Philip Lopate.
Here’s some scientific evidence of the value of reading fiction. Science says it’ll make us better at interacting with people. Poetry stimulates parts of the brain linked to memory and sparks self-reflection. Reading enhances connectivity in the brain, but readers of fiction? They are a special breed.
A 2013 Emory University study looked at the brains of fiction readers. Researchers found heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, part of the brain typically associated with understanding language. The researchers also found increased connectivity in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory region, which helps the brain visualize movement. Fiction readers tend to be more aware of others’ emotions. In the study, empathy was only apparent in the groups of people who read fiction, because “the same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships.” Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience; it is a social experience.
“Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.” (Rebecca Solnit) “At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height.”
Hermann Hesse asserted, “we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”
This is a wonderful piece. One of the great legacies my parents left me was a love of reading. There were always books in my house, and on camping trips. I would hate to live in a world without books. To this day, there are always books at hand. With all of the information overload, I find it quite refreshing to my soul to unplug, and sit with a good book.
One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is sitting on the couch in the living room, reading Peter Pan. I was crying. My mother came to me and asked why I was crying. I don’t remember what I said but I do remember feeling the wonder and beauty of the world I was experiencing. She smiled and I knew that it was okay to feel so deeply; that my mother was on my side and that she respected me. It was comforting to read that fiction readers are more empathetic than others. I’m glad I read a lot of fiction now. The world needs fiction readers. Thanks, Glenn, for the insight based on fact. We need facts, too.
Perhaps the scientific findings about the benefits of reading poetry and fiction, in particular, will reverse the dip in the reading public, and people will begin to see how important reading is in their lives. Certainly, your mother understood the significance of reading: challenging you to read one book a week until you were in seventh grade. As Solnit says, we can live in books and through books, and I might add, see that we are a part of a common humanity.
Yes, let’s hope that “people will begin to see how important reading is in their lives.” But they read about the scientific findings Glenn writers about. Another Catch 22?