When is Book Week?
Book Week is from 19 to 13 August 2019. This year’s theme is Reading is my secret power.
“Magical” may sound like an overstatement, but actually neuroscience is continually providing us with more and more evidence of the power of reading. We can be confident that reading is a strong foundation for writing skills no matter how a child learns. Extensive and early reading helps children develop the ability to recognise and reproduce the sequence of letters in words, the sequence of words in sentences, and the way punctuation functions. Reading gives them a deep understanding of language and of narrative.
According to the neuroscientist (Baroness) Susan Greenfield, long-form reading is a good way to extend attention spans that are being eroded by the short-term dopamine hits of social media. Reading builds the imagination where other forms of entertainment – watching TV, for example, or gaming – provide you with a pre-set range of options emanating from someone else’s imagination. This is why watching the film of a beloved novel can be so disappointing. How can someone else capture your very personal relationship with a set of characters? In order to conjure everything in your own mind, rather than simply receiving the imagery that is offered up to you by someone else, your brain has to do more work to decode and reconstruct the story.
Recent research goes even further to demonstrate a connection between reading fiction and developing empathy. Imaging technology enables us to see the areas of the brain that light up when readers encounter certain descriptions and plot details. It seems that we vicariously experience what we read about, which means that we can live multiple lives while remaining safely on our sofa or tucked up in bed.
These vicarious experiences – “walking in someone else’s shoes” – build our compassion and ability to empathise with others. This is articulated best by Atticus Finch (appropriately, a product of fiction), from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Much has been written lately about the dangers of people living in rapidly shrinking social networks, with their opinions merely reinforced by the echo chamber of their chosen social media channels. In this cultural environment, the need for us to all be aware of the lives of those in different countries, of different genders and religions, different economic and educational opportunities is ever-growing. Fiction also allows us to time travel, giving us insight into the past and the future (although, of course, science and speculative fiction are really all reflections on the present). So, all reading is good, but reading fiction is better.
There’s another secret magical property of fiction: extensive reading of fiction is a training in psychology. Fiction tends to be successful because of the way it convincingly captures human behaviour. I may not be familiar with the situations in which a character finds herself, and she may be nothing at all like me, but if there’s an emotional truth in the way she behaves, I will trust the writer and the story and let it transport me. This gives me insight into the way other people may respond to situations, familiar and unfamiliar.
Reading is an apprenticeship in handling difficult conversations and managing difficult people, and offers an opportunity to consider misbehaviour and self-indulgence from all angles…without making a personal commitment to dissolution yourself.
As an avid (and at some points in my life, obsessive) reader, what I value most are the fictional companions whom I have acquired along the way. There are all the strong, opinionated young women who showed me that it was okay to be like them: To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout, Jo March from Little Women, Seven Little Australian’s Judy, Sybylla Melvyn from My Brilliant Career, Nancy Drew (I have to confess that I loved Nancy Drew), the fabulous Elizabeth Bennet and – although I only encountered her as an adult, she would have been in this number – Philip Pullman’s wonderful Lyra from the Northern Lights Trilogy.
I have always identified with reflective characters like Cassandra from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time (these novels are FAR superior to the film versions), Pip from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and even Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby – whom I will assert controversially is the most interesting character in a novel filled with exaggerated and sometimes grotesque personalities.
As I have grown up, novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and George Eliot’s Middlemarch have made me think long and hard about the nature of the world I live in and have connected me to characters from the past, from the future and even on different planets, whose lives are uncannily similar to my own. At traumatic and sad times in my life, reading fiction has provided solace and escape. I immersed myself in World War I (Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy) to get over a relationship breakup, and, having just moved across the world, I huddled wrapped in a blanket under the one watery light in my miserable room, reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. During a long period of illness, I travelled with Bilbo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee to Mordor (Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy). And, after visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Prague, I sat up all night in my hotel room (hunched on the toilet so I didn’t wake my husband) reading Markus Zusak’s marvellous The Book Thief.
If this sounds like I use reading as a form of therapy, I do. But it’s not just me. Bibliotherapy is a thing. Ceridwen Dovey suggests that reading offers “that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks” – reading for empathy and connection. There’s also evidence that people who read have lower stress levels and lower rates of depression than non-readers, that they even sleep better (unless they’re sitting up all night reading, of course). Perhaps reading’s real superpower is that it is an excellent form of self-medication with far fewer side effects than the other varieties.