The Therapeutic Value of Reading

From The Wall Street Journal:

This past year, I’ve found myself returning again and again to a line of poetry by Emily Dickinson: “There is no frigate like a book.”

Like many people, I’ve needed the therapeutic effects of reading more than ever this year. As neuroscientists and psychologists (and your high school English teacher) will tell you: Books are good for the brain. And their benefits are particularly vital now. Books expand our world, providing an escape and offering novelty, surprise and excitement, which boost dopamine. They broaden our perspective and help us empathize with others. And they can improve our social life, giving us something to connect over.

Books can also distract us and help reduce our mental chatter. When we hit that glorious “flow state” of reading where we’re fully immersed in a book, our brain’s default mode network likely calms down, says Jud Brewer, a psychiatrist who directs research at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. That’s a network of brain regions that is active when we are not doing anything else and that can get absorbed in worrying and rumination.

“There’s so much noise in the world right now and the very act of reading is a kind of meditation,” says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of the Miami-based independent bookstores Books & Books and co-founder of the Miami Book Fair. “You disconnect from the chaos around you. You reconnect with yourself when you are reading. And there’s no more noise.”

. . . .

Yet even as people are buying more books, many are reporting they’re having a harder time getting through them. A study of British reading habits during the pandemic conducted this summer by researchers at Aston University in Birmingham, U.K., found that while people were reading more—citing more time to read, a desire to distract themselves, and more time spent reading with children—they were reading more slowly. Many of the survey’s 860 participants said they were distracted, and that this lack of concentration was making it harder to progress, according to Abigail Boucher, a researcher on the study and a lecturer in English Literature at the university.

Of course, it’s difficult for your brain to focus on a book when it’s constantly scanning for threats so it can keep you alive. That’s exactly what’s been happening to most of us since March—our fight-or-flight response has been consistently activated. (Sometimes I picture my brain as a cartoon brain with little arms and legs, swatting away a book I am holding and screaming: “Can’t you see I’m busy!”) Anxiety also causes our brain to release a flood of stress hormones, which zap our energy and make it harder to concentrate.

What can you do when this happens to you? Be more mindful of your reading habits. Here’s how.

Meditate. Clear your mind before you start reading. Sit quietly for five minutes and let your mind quiet down. Or listen to a short guided meditation.

Start short! Our brains are wired to love a reward, says Brown’s Dr. Brewer, author of the forthcoming book, “Unwinding Anxiety.” And finishing something you’re reading is rewarding. “It feels good, so your brain will want to do it again,” he says. He recommends choosing an engaging short story, maybe by a favorite author, and allowing yourself to get immersed. Then reflect on how you felt when you were reading.

Read something relevant. “If you are feeling in a state of flux, you can read in order to understand what is going on around you,” says Mr. Kaplan of Books & Books. If the topic is relevant to your life or current events, it’s also more likely to hold your attention. And research by professor emeritus Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto shows that the more narratives you read—fiction, biography, memoir, history—the more empathic you become. “Someone has worked very hard to take you inside the mind of another person,” he says.

Return to something familiar. When times are uncertain and scary, something familiar can be a source of solace. The survey of pandemic reading habits conducted by the researchers at Aston University found two types of readers: Those who focused on reading something new to them, to expand their knowledge, and those who re-read familiar books for the sense of comfort and stability and the lack of surprises.

. . . .

Go inward. Readers turned to many “quieter,” more introspective books this year, such as memoirs, books on mindfulness, and poetry, says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami and co-founder of the Miami Book Fair. “The language of poetry often provokes a kind of catharsis when someone is feeling conflict,” he says.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG and Mrs. PG each read in bed almost every night. Typically, PG reads until he begins to get sleepy (or Mrs. PG tells him it’s time to stop reading.)

PG’s reading tool of choice is a Kindle Fire he purchased in 2014 and shows no sign of running out of its love of life.

He likes his Fire because its screen is lit from the sides, rather than from the back through the screen. He thinks this is easier on his eyes than his iPad. He also recalls reading somewhere that this sort of light has less tendency to interfere with falling asleep than direct light coming through the screen.

PG has also turned the light intensity down to a level that is not very bright on the theory (unproven to his knowledge) that dimmer light is less likely to disrupt sleep patterns. Low light allows PG to read with all the room lights off after Mrs. PG falls asleep without disturbing her.

PG’s reading-in-bed position is extremely comfortable because he lies completely flat on his back with no propping up of his head with a pillow, etc.

He can see the book while flat on his back with the assistance of a cheap device he purchased on Amazon that looks like this:

Since PG has worn corrective lenses (including a period of time when he wore contact lenses before returning to glasses exclusively) approximately forever, he finds it more comfortable to read through the weird prism glasses with an inexpensive (thanks Zenni!) pair of single-vision regular glasses for which his ophthalmologist provided a “computer glasses” prescription. (YMMV)

With a single-vision “in-between distance” prescription, the angle of PG’s head remains constant as he reads, as opposed to looking higher or lower through regular glasses to view items at various distances through his normal progressive lenses.

Flat on his back, PG can read for hours on end in perfect physical comfort.

However, PG’s preferred and extremely-most-comfortable prism-glasses reading position for long-form works doesn’t work with printed books (he’s tried).

Firstly, he would have to leave some room lights on, so Mrs. PG’s rest might be disturbed.

Secondly, while the Fire shows a single page at a time, a printed book requires PG to turn his head back and forth to read each page when the printed book is open, which is awkward and means that the distance between his eyes, passing through glasses and prisms, and the entire two-page reading area is not.

Thirdly, turning the pages in a printed book while lying flat on one’s back requires more movement and messing about than tapping a screen with one’s thumb. Plus there’s the 90-degree disjunction between what PG is seeing and what his hands have to do with a printed book.

Fourthly, if PG drops a printed book while turning the page or for any other reason, he has to find his place again, which is a much easier job if he takes off his reading contraption. If he drops his Kindle Fire, it just lies there, showing the same page until he picks it up again.

Fifthly, when he turns on his Fire, it’s on exactly the same page where he stopped, so no bookmarks, bending down the corner of the page (like his school librarian said he should never, ever do), etc., are needed.

Sixthly, the Fire runs forever on a single charge and, if PG forgets to plug it in, he can read it while it’s recharging.

Seventhly, when PG travels, the Kindle weighs nothing (11.04 oz, to be exact), fits anywhere and PG doesn’t need to locate a bookstore to obtain a new book if he finishes reading the one he has been reading and has forgotten to load a spare.

One thingly that just occurred to PG is that, since he flies much, much less than he did in former days, he doesn’t know if he can purchase and load a new ebook on his Fire during a flight or not.

One of these days, when his current Fire dies or behaves erratically, PG will instantly order another. They’re dirt-cheap. If PG were replacing his today, he would likely purchase the smallest one because it’s small (screen about the size of a trade paperback) and highly-portable.

Today’s Fires do lots of other things beside show ebooks, but PG suspects his iPad may be better at doing at least some of those other things. However, for reading ebooks, the Kindle Fire is King!

Since he has been so enthusiastically effusive in his praise, PG will disclose that he’s an Amazon affiliate and receives a small commission if you click on any of the links that appear on TPV that end up on Amazon. You don’t pay anything more if you arrive at Amazon by clicking on one of PG’s links than if you went there directly.

That said, because the Kindle Fire is so inexpensive, PG’s affiliate commission will be lower if you click on one of the other links and buy what you then see on Amazon than it will be if you click on this link and buy what appears. (Don’t feel obligated. PG will still be your friend if you don’t buy.)