The Importance of Reading Part 2: Concentrate!

sleep-2324347_1280When I worked as a teacher, we were always advised to split lessons into small chunks, because otherwise the attention of the students would start wandering. This seemed to make sense, especially when there was so much being said about how attention spans of today’s youth were so short. And having short activities that changed a lot did help keep students motivated.

But I don’t think this was down to attention span alone.

Many of the students I worked with played video games. Ask them what they’d been up to, and they’d talk about the games. When GTA3 came out, it was pretty much all some of them talked about. They spent hours playing the game, and complain that they were tired in school because they’d been up until the early hours.

If they could concentrate on one game for so long, what does this say about their attention span?

Of course, video games are designed to draw you in and keep you playing. They trigger dopamine rushes through constant rewards, and the fast pace, combined with beat-heavy music, increases adrenaline. Compared to hours driving round in a fast-paced game where you can control your own actions (and especially when you’re rewarded for doing things you’d never get away with in everyday life), doing ‘schoolwork’ is dull. Racing around a virtual world for hours is easy, but a few minutes taxing your brain to solve a maths problem using only pen and paper can feel like an eternity.

television-and-radio-2741799_1280The issue isn’t attention span but concentration. It’s easier to do something fun than something we find boring. It’s also easier to enjoy an activity when it gives instant rewards, and when it engages so many of our senses. This is why many people prefer watching films and TV over reading fiction.

And this is one reason why reading is so important.

To explain, let me back up a bit.

When we read, all we have are words on a page. We need to decipher these words, and the sentences they form. We use different parts of our brain to see, to decipher, and then to understand. We need to create our own image of what the writer is describing, and we need to engage our empathy to catch the emotions in the text.

All this takes time. Think about a story like Fight Club. The film is longer than average, clocking in at 139 minutes. The book is fairly short, about 200 pages (under 50,000 words), and this takes the average reader over 200 minutes to read.

Let’s take another example‌—‌The Lord Of The Rings (the complete trilogy). The extended versions of Peter Jackson’s film versions clock in at around 650 minutes (almost 11 hours). The book is over 1000 pages, taking just over 23 hours to read.

Reading a book takes more time and more concentration than watching a film. So why bother? Why not get the story at a faster pace, with less effort? After all, it’s still a story, right?

But they’re not the same. There’s a richness to reading that is missing from film and TV (just as there are things that audio-visual media do better than text). Yes, reading requires more effort, but there are still rich rewards in the pages of a book.

Keen readers know this instinctively. They know that sometimes a slow passage is simply a lull in the pace, and that their perseverance will be rewarded when action kicks in over the next few pages or chapters. They know that long descriptions set the scene, and might well give insight into characters and events. They know that the dialogue is not simply characters talking, but is also character and story development. Even if a reader cannot articulate this, they understand that each word is important.

But not everything in a book is automatically on the page. A good writer will hint at things rather than spelling them out. There might be a particular phrase that is crafted to trigger an emotion, or to remind us of something that we have (almost) missed earlier on. An aside from a character might alert us to something happening off-page.

These things are not obvious, and so we have to concentrate if we are to pick up on them. To get the most from a book, we don’t merely read the words‌—‌we are called to analyse the text, and to consider both what is written and what is alluded to.

learning-164331_1280This is an important skill to learn. In life, we don’t get everything handed to us on a plate (at least, the vast majority of us don’t). Not everything is explained to us in terms we understand. We can’t have what we want the instant we demand it. To get anywhere, we have to work‌—‌and that takes effort and concentration.

Reading teaches us to concentrate before we are rewarded. It also teaches us to focus on both what is obvious and what is hidden. It teaches us to avoid distractions‌—‌not only from the world around us, but also from ourselves.


So reading helps us slow down in our fast lives (to read my thoughts on this, click here for The Importance of Reading Part 1), and it increases our concentration. But it is also important for other reasons, and I’ll continue with my thoughts on this topic in a couple of weeks.

Short stories are back! New story ‘The Campaign’ free to read now.

After a break for the summer, I’m back into posting free short stories. I wrote quite a few first drafts while on holiday, so I have plenty to be working on over the next few months.

The first of these is The Campaign. I found myself wondering how holidays might change as virtual reality becomes increasingly realistic. Of course, there would be advantages‌—‌no need for hours spent at airports or on stuffy coaches, the ability to tailor the holiday to individual tastes, and so on. But there would be problems, too. As with any technological advance, there would be those who wished to disrupt it.

This story came from those thoughts, and you can read it here. As always, I’d love to hear your comments.

The Importance of Reading Part 1: Slow Down!

 

Reading is one of the greatest ways of spending time.

Okay, so I’m biased. I’ve always loved reading, and now that I’m writing seriously, I’m continually being reminded of the joys of reading. But I’m also learning more about the importance of reading.

I don’t meant the importance of being able to read. Of course it’s important to be able to decode written language. Without reading skills, we would be unable to understand instructions or warning messages, and our communication with others would be limited. Where once reading was the reserve of the wealthy educated, today being unable to read is something that causes shame.

reading-2557256_1280But there’s more to reading than simply understanding the words. Reading is an active pursuit‌—‌when we read, we decipher lines to discover the words, and then we analyse the flow of those words to uncover meaning. Reading is a journey, and we have to partake in it. The words mark a course, and we, the reader, have to put in the leg-work to reach the destination.

Maybe this is why other forms of story entertainment hold a greater pull. TV and films can be experienced far more passively, social media (in which our ‘friends’ contribute to stories played out in real time) plays out in smaller chunks that are easily digestible. Gaming is active, but in a different way to reading‌—‌the immersive element does not rely on our own imagination so much.

Yet reading is still incredibly popular, and I think this is fantastic. I believe that reading is not only enjoyable, but also incredibly important.

I posted recently about an episode of The Allusionist podcast that highlighted the mental health benefits of reading, but this is only one facet. Reading does so many things for us as readers.

Over the next few posts, I want to explore some of the reasons why I believe reading is so important.

I could have put all these reasons in one post. I could have come up with a list, or a series of images or something. But I’m going to take my time over this. I want to take things slowly.

And that dovetails nicely into my first reason:

Reading gives us the opportunity to slow down.

people-692005_1280Most people’s lives are hectic. Technology is wonderful, but it’s a double-edges sword. When technology started changing the way people worked, there were those who anticipated a time when a single person could do the work of twenty others, and in a fraction of the time. They envisaged a world where work took a few hours a day, and then we lived a life of luxury.

Yeah, right! Technology enables us to do more, and so our bosses‌—‌and their bosses, and so on‌—‌expect more out of us. We work long hours‌—‌yes, we can get far more done with technology, but so can everyone else. To stay ahead, we have to do even more.

And when we get home, there’s the constant bombardment of stimuli.

I can remember when there were three channels to choose from on TV, and they all shut down late at night. We had one television in the house‌—‌if you didn’t want to watch what others did, you went off to do something else.

Now, we have countless channels. Then there are subscription on-demand services. We have access to instant videos on YouTube. We have social media. We have real-time video communication. We’re inundated with messages.

If this is all too much, we do have the option of turning all our devices off, but this is hard for many to do‌—‌there’s always the fear of missing something ‘important’. And even if we do manage a digital detox, we can’t escape unless we hide in our own homes. Adverts bombard us in the high street, and music calls to us. Some adverts play videos, which are even more eye-catching. Everywhere we turn, there are images and voices scrambling for our attention.

I don’t think constant stimulation like this is healthy. We need time to slow down. However much we enjoy (and get a thrill from) this, we all benefit from moments of calm.

Reading can give us that time.

tranquility-2233620_1280It demands long periods of our attention, away from distractions. This might mean finding a quiet spot at home, or it might mean training ourselves to ignore the clamour around us (for instance, shutting off from the bustle of the morning commute).

Then, we need to give time up for reading. Rather than blasting through thirty-second videos, or flicking between different social media accounts, reading requires concerted effort over a number of minutes, maybe even hours.

And as we read, we are drawn into the story (or the journey of discovery if we are reading non-fiction). The noise around us fades away as the words take over. We step out of time and enter a new world. Our bodies rest as our imagination takes us to other places.

Reading enables us not only to slow down, but to disengage, to escape the rush of our lives. Reading gives us moments of calm. It can help us sleep‌—‌many studies have highlighted how good sleep is easier to achieve after winding down, and that staring at screens keeps our minds too active. It can give us the opportunity to take a breath and unwind.

But this is only one reason why reading is important. I’ll comment on more reasons later. Until then, enjoy the calm that reading can bring.

Book recommendations from this summer

 

Summer holidays are wonderful reading time. When it’s so hot that you don’t feel like moving, what can be better than lounging about with a book is ideal (and with e-readers, you don’t even need to physically turn pages). It’s an opportunity to catch up on some of those ‘must read’ books that have been on the ‘to-be-read’ list for far too long, or to dive into a new read.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how reading was such a popular activity around hotel pools (and you can read that here). This week, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite reads from this summer.

PerdidoStreetStation_ChinaMievillePerdido Street Station‌—‌China Mieville

China Mieville is one of those authors where I’m almost embarrassed by how few of his books I’ve actually read. A couple of years ago I read King Rat (can recall enjoying it a lot), and earlier this year I read his short novel The Last Days Of New Paris (which left me feeling like I wanted to explore the world he created in far more detail).

So I’m long overdue a read of his first New Crobzun novel. I started it expecting to be impressed‌‌—‌‌and I wasn’t disappointed.

The world-building is incredible, not only in the setting but also in the characters‌—‌insect/human hybrids, bird-men and strange mutants. It’s all wonderfully imaginative, but when it’s combined with Mieville’s prose it’s an encompassing experience.

Some of the negative reviews of this book on Amazon complain that the story is slow to start, and while there is some justification in this comment, I think it’s necessary‌—‌to care about characters so strange in such an unfamiliar place, Mieville has to take us in hand and show us these wonders first. And when the story does get going, it’s a roller-coaster of a ride.

I’m not sure how to describe this book‌—‌it’s second-world fantasy, but there are nods towards sci-fi along with strong horror elements‌—‌but I think that’s a good thing. This book feels unique, and while that means it might not be to everybody’s taste, it’s a book I’d highly recommend.

And I really should read more of Mieville’s work before the year is up.

Artemis_AndyWeirArtemis‌—‌Andy Weir

Andy Weir, of course, came to fame with The Martian, which I greatly enjoyed. But I was wary of reading his second novel‌—‌The Martian felt like it could have been a one-off, and I didn’t want my enjoyment to be tainted by a disappointing follow-up.

I needn’t have bothered, because Artemis is just as good as The Martian. It’s not a sequel‌—‌it’s not even the same kind of book. Artemis is a fast-paced thriller set on a colonised base on the moon, with a spiky, sassy main character, gangsters, smuggling, and a bit of politics and business intrigue. There’s murder and fights too.

But what it does share with The Martian is science. I can’t comment on the accuracy of it, but it all sounds plausible‌—‌and in a novel, that’s good enough for me. The characters solve problems using physics, but science also causes many of their problems.

Oh, and like his protagonist in The Martian, the characters in Artemis do tend to swear quite a bit. Don’t know if Weir’s going to release a ‘child-friendly’ version of this, like he did with The Martian (personally I don’t see why he should), but unless you’re put off by ‘bad language’, this is another book I’d recommend‌—‌exciting and intelligent.

I’m already looking forward to whatever Weir comes out with next.

Obscura_JoeHartObscura‌—‌Joe Hart

I first heard of Joe Hart when I was writing Dark Glass. At the time, I was toying with calling my series Dominion, but when I did a search in Amazon I noticed a book called The Last Girl, a Dystopian story with the subtitle The Dominion Trilogy, Book 1. I checked out the author name, and discovered that Joe Hart had beaten me to my preferred series name.

His is a trilogy, though, whereas mine is longer. I added an ‘s’, and branded my books as Dominions. I’m sure he doesn’t mind‌—‌especially as his trilogy has done very well.

That’s not surprising, because they are good reads. So when I saw his new one on Amazon, I bought it.

Obscura isn’t Dystopian. In fact, it’s hard to describe. We have a protagonist who is searching for a cure to the version of dementia that destroyed her husband and now affects their daughter, so there are elements of medical thriller. But she’d addicted to painkillers, and as the book progresses it becomes a psychological thriller. Oh, and much of it happens in the near future, in space, so it’s also a sci-fi adventure.

If that sounds like it should be a mess, it isn’t. Hart weaves the story together brilliantly‌—‌a plot filled with misdirection and intrigue, but always remaining focused on the characters, especially the protagonist’s inner turmoil. It’s the kind of book where anything could happen, and I highly recommend it.

So another author goes on the ‘must read more’ list.


There were other books I enjoyed (the first three John Milton thrillers by Mark Dawson were fast-paced, enjoyable reads, and The King Of Space Must Die by Barry J Hutchison kept to the same high standards as the rest of the Space Team series but brought it all to a satisfying close), but I don’t have time to go into details here.

My ‘to-be-read’ list is still as long as ever, but I’m always on the lookout for more titles to add to it‌‌—‌‌any suggestions greatly appreciated.

 

The Power Of Words now on pre-release

PowerOfWordsCoverThe Power Of Words, an anthology of stories centred on the First Amendment, is now available for pre-order at 99c/99p. Four futuristic, apocalyptic and fantasy stories by four authors‌—‌myself, Richard T. Drake, Heidi Angell and M.L.S. Weech.

The e-book will be released on 1st October, with paperback and audio versions also available around that time.

Pre-order The Power Of Words from Amazon (.com/.uk /.au)

Reading is good for your mental health

I got into listening to podcasts a few years ago, roughly when I started writing seriously. Initially, it was a way of learning about this whole writing and indie-publishing thing‌—‌The Creative Penn (amazing to consider that Joanna Penn has been putting this podcast out for over nine years now), The Self-Publishing Podcast (now re-branded as The Story Studio), and the sadly no longer running Rocking Self-Publishing.

Over the years, I’ve expanded the list of podcasts I listen to on a regular basis (and when I find a new one, I’ll usually listen to their whole back-list too). Many focus on writing and publishing, and this is my main way of keeping up to date with what is happening, as well as continually learning. But I also listen for the enjoyment, and I’ve branched out into other podcasts.

AllusionistLogoOne of these is Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist. She brands it as ‘a podcast about language’, and that pretty much sums it up. She’s done episodes on the Rosetta Stone, how one area of Argentina speaks Welsh, messages on dating apps, letter-writing, the BBC shipping forecast, swearing, eponyms‌‌…‌‌the list goes on.

But I thought I’d single out the latest episode, because it deals with reading. I’ve always considered reading to be far more than simply a way of being entertained, but this episode (A Novel Remedy) looks at some of the mental health benefits of reading. Reading can help cure or alleviate psychological problems. Helen talks to a clinical psychologist who uses novel-reading with her patients. She also explores why murder mysteries written by the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were so popular‌—‌and so helpful to the mental state of readers‌—‌in the years after the First World War.

It’s a very interesting listen, and you can find it here. And if you’re interested in language and words, I’d recommend you pop over to The Allusionist’s website and give some of the other episodes a listen.

Reading is alive and well

As a method of taking in entertainment, reading has a lot of competition‌—‌music, film, TV, video games, as well as the plethora of entertainment available on-line. These are all arguably more immediate than reading. With the possible exception of video games, reading is the only one that cannot be consumed passively‌—‌it requires effort, in concentrating on the words and making sense of the sentences. And it takes timeva three-minute song, a ninety-minute film, or a five-hour novel.

Sometimes, it feels that reading is becoming a lost art. Libraries are struggling here in the UK, and many have closed. High-street bookstores are disappearing too.

pool-2217508_1280

But reading is far from dead, and this was brought home to me recently on holiday. It started at the airport, and then on the plane‌—‌with hours of time to fill, passengers turned to books. And at the hotel, the popularity of reading became even more obvious.

We spent quite a bit of time by the pool, and I’d often glance around to see what others were doing. Many were sunbathing, with eyes shut. Some were talking. Others swam. And a high number of holidaymakers were reading. Whenever I counted up, there were more people reading than there were in the pool.

Let that sink in for a moment‌—‌at a hotel pool, reading was a more popular activity than swimming.

I took a surreptitious look at what people were reading. The books ranged wide. I saw Stephen King, but also China Mieville. Judging by the covers, there were thrillers and romance alongside contemporary/literary fiction. A few looked like biographies. Someone even produced a book of sheet music and read this, humming to himself.

woman-3550357_1280Then there were the electronic readers. I’m assuming that many were Kindles, although I did see one Kobo (and that made me feel good‌—‌as much as I love my Kindle, it’s good to know that Amazon does still have competition).

And then there were the phones.

Of course, that phones are capable of so much more than displaying e-books. Some people round the pool wore headphones and held their phones in landscape mode, and I assume they were watching videos. Others tapped away, presumably either on games or social media apps and sites‌—‌although maybe they were writing.

But a large number of phone-users held their devices in portrait mode and tapped only occasionally‌—‌the same behaviours as those using e-readers. I have to assume that these people were reading on their phones.

Not all this reading was solitary, either. At one point, a couple sat on a couple of loungers and both produced books. After reading for a few minutes, he passed his book over to her, pointing to a particular passage. She read this, and made some comment on it.

I wondered if they’d swap books as their holiday progressed, and if they’d spend time in the evenings discussing what they’d read.

But holidays are not everyday life. Some people might say this is not evidence that reading is popular. Those who read by the pool might read nothing else for the rest of the year.

This could be true‌—‌but doesn’t that make reading something special? These people were on holiday, taking time out of their normal routines. They chose to relax in the sun by a pool, and as part of that relaxation they chose to read. Books might not be something they turn to every day, but they are reserved for special occasions. They are a way to unwind, to forget the day-to-day troubles. If someone only reads on holiday, that shows how they value reading as an exclusive activity.

Maybe those on the plane and at the airport read because they had too much time trapped in one place‌—‌but they still chose to read. Just like those who read on their daily commute to and from work, they chose to consume books to pass the time. They chose to take their entertainment in written form.

And maybe some of those holiday-makers (many of them?) were like me‌—‌using time by the pool as an opportunity to indulge in one of their favourite activities.