Open a Book and Open a Part of Yourself

By Maddie Elias

Sometimes people ask me why I read so much. When they ask this, my response always comes down to, “Because it’s fun.” I must be insane, right? A book is just a bunch of words on a bunch of paper, which sure doesn’t sound like much fun. And yet, it’s the truth. Reading a good book can be an absolutely phenomenal experience; take it from someone who’s been reading for fun since early elementary school. It can take a little while before the story starts getting interesting, but once I get hooked, I am hooked. The printed words conjure up sights and sounds, smells and tastes, touches and emotions. Physically, I’m in one place with your nose in a book; but I might as well be a million miles away as far as my mind is concerned. I will smile, frown, gasp, fidget, and feel all kinds of emotions welling up inside of me. In the best cases I’ll laugh out loud, or shed tears, or some combination of the two. When I finally come up for air, I’ll look around, having forgotten where I really am. Depending on what the story was, I may feel like I’ve been struck by lightning, like I could fly if I tried (never test that feeling, by the way, unless you can pilot a plane or something), or somewhere in between.

In the days of the printing press, reading was an integral, voluntary part of life. Before technology such as computers and television, there were novels, local newspapers, and books of poetry. Even among the generation before ours, books were always on the shelf of entertainment choices. Nowadays, that trend hardly applies. The commonality of reading has been replaced by the commonality of social networking.

Reading is like a cardio workout for the brain; the more you do it, the better you get. You may have to start out small, doing it at a slower, lower-level pace, but with steady practice you’ll improve. Getting better at reading means that your brain is also progressing in all sorts of ways, many of which you would have never guessed. Neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene recently conducted a study of reading’s effect on the brain: he took scans on the brains of a group of illiterate adults, and then taught them to read. After some time of this, he took scans of their brains for a second time, and found dramatic changes. Their skills in detecting and processing sights and sounds improved, as did their ability to control the whole problem-solving way of thinking. A New York Times article published in August 2007 also reported that good readers were better able to retain brain skills developed during their lives.

A popular website such as Facebook doesn’t require much reading; it mostly consists of photos, videos, and statuses. (I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the irony of the name Facebook). What happens when you spend all your time on such a word-scarce website? Your cranial capability goes down, down, down. Nicholas Carr recently wrote a book, titled “The Shallows,” addressing how the Internet, including Facebook, affects the brain. Carr came to the conclusion that there are two general types of knowledge: deep domain expertise (involves being substantially developed in one or more mediums), and knowing where to find any information that is important. The Internet gives us easy access to all relevant information, but it reduces our deep domain expertise. Skimming over information on the Web only requires a superficial extent of the brain for storing said info. Without a cataclysm for their development (such as a book), deeper pools for information won’t get formed, and existing pools are left to dry up and cave in, as it were.

Books can tell us a lot about ourselves. The books you enjoy give a presentation of the things that interest you, of the things happening in your life. Each book has things that you like about it, and those things represent your values. Maybe you like a book because you can relate to it in some way. Sarah Dessen, who has written many young adult novels, is one of my favorite authors. Each of her books is written from the viewpoint of a teenage girl, which enables me to learn of their stories and think, “What if these things happened to me?” Periodically I can even find similarities between the characters and myself. When I started reading books of fantasy fiction and historical fiction, I found that I had a hungry imagination waiting to be fed, with the books being the most wonderfully satisfying food. Open a book, and you may just open up a new part of yourself.

Perusing Facebook rarely causes that sort of self-discovery, if ever. What sort of lesson are you supposed to learn from reading someone’s “OMG, you are sooo hot!” comment on one of your selfies? What substantial interest can you find from scrolling down feed on the homepage (I think all of us on Facebook have wasted plenty of time on said activity)?

While a book is about self-entertainment and self-information, Facebook is largely about image. Sure, it’s a way to talk to people without having to be there in person, but most of what we do is about trying to portray ourselves positively. Take the photos that get posted: they either show a person at their most good-looking or in the midst of something fun. Said photos have commonly been touched-up or enhanced before they reach the public view. When you see the image that a person has crafted for themselves—an image that’s beautiful, exciting, funny, cool, and so on—, it’s not likely to make you feel the best. You might feel jealous, uncomfortable, or inferior. All too often that is the effect of Facebook.

Books are not the most popular thing these days, but don’t let that make you think that they aren’t stupendous. French author Andre Maurois once said, “The art of reading is in great part that of acquiring a better understanding of life from one’s encounter with it in a book.” Pretty deep statement, right? Compare that to a person’s Facebook status that said, “Norwegian cruise lines sent me a trip….where in the hell is Norwegia????” I think the difference between the two speaks for itself.

Photo by Joe Crawford.