Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Additional Benefits of Reading

“Give me a man or woman who has read a thousand books and you give me an interesting companion. Give me a man or woman who has read perhaps three and you give me a dangerous enemy indeed.”
-Anne Rice, The Witching Hour

“The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”
-Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1964

“The connection between reading speed and comprehension; a film is made up of still images flashed in rapid succession to simulate movement. Slow down the film, and the movement and meaning slows and the film's impact is diminished. Viewers won't learn as much about the film as if it were shown at normal speed. With reading the same thing can happen. When a person reads word by word, like frame by frame, they are not reading on the level of ideas. You need to read on some level that's more conversational and allows things to coalesce into ideas themselves.”
-Doug Evans, Institute of Reading Development

“So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, Go throw your TV set away, And in its place you can install, A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”
- Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


When I was a child I had a lot of excess energy. I was very inquisitive. I wanted to learn about the world as fast as possible. However my (very loving) family into which I was adopted was nothing like me in that regard. Wonderful people, but with all the curiosity and imagination of complacent basset hounds. They loved me very much and gave me a great childhood; however I was so different from them that I almost think sometimes that they thought of me as more of a curiosity than a child. Something to be wheeled out at dinner parties to recite religious-based poetry verbatim at the age of six. “Oooh, he’s so smart…” Well, compared to them, I guess I was.

“Dearest Loving Jesus, please help me to be good,
And do the things and say the things that all good children should…”

(It’s burned indelibly into my memory. I wish I could forget that shit.)

Fortunately they did one thing right. Almost as if they realized that they had little to offer me in the way of satisfying the black hole of curiosity that burned within me, they did the one thing that they could have in that pre-Internet age to set me on a path whereby I could do so myself. They taught me how to read. More than that though, and an important distinction, they taught me how to *love* to read. It was a big thing with my mom that I should both be able to read, and should love to read, even though she herself did not. I have to give her a lot of credit for getting that one right.

I remember that it was in the fourth grade though, that I really got hooked on reading. Like a pathetic junkie, I mean.

After that I remember spending days with the Hardy Boys. My standard rate was five of them in eight hours. Not bad for a twelve-year-old.

Once when I was about thirteen I actually threatened my dad that if he didn’t buy me a certain book that I had been waiting to read which was “just out in stores” that I would have to steal it. Like as if it would be his fault, so he'd better buy me the damned book or start me on a life of crime or something. To his credit, I didn’t get the book, and did get spoken to very sternly about my self-centeredness. Good job there, dad.

And then in conjunction with all of this, the Wonders of Science Fiction were revealed unto me by a used car salesman that worked for my uncle’s AMC dealership, where I would frequently spend time as a child due to the fact that my dad was the General Manager. I am forever indebted to Bill the car salesman who gave me his discarded pulp mags, and later some appropriately silly novels of Alien Invasion and other standard fare SF of the day that caught my interest. When I discovered Larry Niven (a four-book set given to me by my aunt at Christmas) I was hooked for life. And of course on television there was Star Trek to further fuel my imagination and oddly enough I think even shape my future morality to some extent. That was when I managed to convince my parents to let me watch it instead of them watching Lawrence Welk. Ahh, back in the day of one TV per family...

(As an aside, I have to recommend Star Trek to anyone as an excellent thing to park your kids in front of regardless of how bad that sounds. It’s like imagination gasoline with a positive message.)

Sometimes I think that if I hadn't found reading, I'd have long ago gone insane, or at the very least clinically depressed. It was everything to me as a child.

I have come to believe that developing a true love of reading is much more important that we realize. If you do not like to read, you do not develop your visual imagination anywhere near to its potential. With your visual imagination, in tandem with your logical ability (which we all have been trained to think is the more important by far) we have essentially two huge tools with which to accurately judge what we perceive in this world, rather than only one.

Visual imagery adds dramatic depth to the level of our understanding of what we are judging with our logical abilities, and thus how we perceive reality.

With a well-developed reading ability, when you are examining a logical problem you can better understand what the logical words you are saying to yourself in your head actually mean in relation to the “world out there” due to the fact that there is also a very detailed illustration in your mind that you are automatically manipulating to match the word descriptions of various things which occur to you in relation to your train of thought. This ability is like being in possession of a futuristic 3-D viewer in your mind that can show anything you desire it to, automatically, no effort involved. You do not have to think “I wish to visualize this sequence of events that I am now thinking of in verbal form” when you are a practiced reader, because you automatically access visual imagery when you think of verbal information. When you think of a verbal series of events, you automatically have the accompanying visualization of it to 'look' at as you do so. You’ve learned to visualize what you read in a book; this is automatically transferred to what you “read” out loud to your self in word form when you think logically about anything whatsoever. It's not that non-avid-readers cannot do this; just that they cannot do it nearly as well. By becoming an avid reader you have installed a bridge in your mind between verbal thought flow and visual imagery, and have subsequently strengthened that bridge with every new book that you have read.

People who have no great reading skills do not develop them because they do not read stories and novels and adventures and mysteries, cannot 'get into' such stories, because they were never coaxed to go beyond the tipping point where one starts to visualize what one is reading, and so it is my belief that they also automatically have a real handicap in being able to visualize day-to-day problems well enough to solve them optimally.

Often times when I cannot "see eye-to-eye" with someone, I feel that the problem lies in their inability to visualize what I am talking about as well as I am visualizing what they're talking about. Sometimes it even seems to me that they aren't capable of adequately visualizing what they themselves are talking about.

(I must always consider the possibility that I am the one in error of course, but still, even after that...)

Visual imagination is also a key to empathy since you must be able to first truly imagine the travails of another person in order to develop empathy in the first place, and you can’t do so without being able to accurately visualize what their day-to-day life is like, their situations, their dilemmas. Words alone, or even words coupled with the increasingly-normal-now sub-par power to visualize, just aren’t enough to really do that. With a well-developed visual imagination one almost automatically puts one's self into the other's place and imagines seeing out of their eyes for a bit. And once one does that, one is automatically empathetic to their lives and can better relate to them as fellow humans.

So teach your children to read, and then go that one step further and teach them to love to read. It’s one of the biggest gifts that you can give to them. Oh, and it won't be easy. There are a lot more distractions out there now than in my day. Do it anyhow.