What do you see when you read a book?

I read China Mieville’s The City And The City recently (I’m slowly chipping away at my ‘to-read’ list). I enjoy his writing style, and I think his world-building is fantastic (in many meanings of that word). But something strange happened as I read the book.

It’s written in first person, and I automatically pictured the narrator as female. I’ve no idea why, but even when it became clear that the character was male, I still saw him as female. I don’t think there was anything specific Mieville wrote that would make me picture his protagonist as anything but male, so I can only think this is down to how I approached the book.

And this got me thinking. When I read, I picture things in a certain way, but this isn’t necessarily how others picture the book, or even how the writer saw the story in his or her own head. Every reader is different, and we each bring our own unique perspectives to anything we read.

octopus-1235006_1280Stories (in books) pass from writers to readers through the medium of words, but there is always going to be interpretation involved in this. Writers aim to give as much action/emotion/description in as few words as possible. If everything was described in enough detail to convey every single aspect of the story, the action would move at a glacial pace, and all sense of forward momentum would be lost. Stories that describe too much are (for most readers) tiring to read‌—‌hence the search for conciseness. Gustave Flaubert talked about finding ‘le mot juste’, the right word.

But even that causes problems. Words mean different things to different people. I’ve heard the word ‘solid’ used to mean both good (as in ‘rock-solid’, firm and unmoving‌—‌a solid fellow) and difficult (as in ‘hard’‌—‌“that game’s well solid!”).

Think of that classic story opening; ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That might conjure up thoughts of uncertainty, maybe even fear. But to some, storms can be exciting. Or maybe darkness helps others escape from their day-to-day troubles, and the addition of poor weather brings up thoughts of being beside a fire, enclosed in the safety and warmth of their very own home.

There is no perfect word. There is no ideal way to describe something.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. One often-repeated piece of writing advice is to picture your ideal reader, and write to them. I believe Stephen King’s ‘ideal reader’ is his wife, and others might use real people too, but many create their own ideal reader (maybe a female forty-something divorced librarian living in Pittsburg, or a heavy metal fan working an office job but dreaming of becoming a professional musician). This might seem strange, but it is impossible to write a book that pleases everyone, and trying to make a story too universal usually means creating something bland, something that many find ‘okay’ but that nobody gets excited about. Anything designed to appeal to a wide range of people will fell watered-down.

Attitudes to books will naturally differ. Even if two readers enjoy the same book, it could well be for different reasons‌—‌some King fans might get a kick from the build-up of tension, and others might love the way he pulls them into the minds of his characters. Some people read Iain Banks’ sci-fi books for the vast ideas, others enjoy his way of telling a story.

There’s no right or wrong here. Every book is written by an individual (or a few individual in the case of co-written works), and the words are formed through the filter of their own lives. These books then get consumed by individual readers, who digest these words through the filter of their own experiences and ideas.

And this means that books are never static.

There’s this idea that, when something is created, it’s completed. In some ways, this is true‌—‌when a writer puts a book out, it stays the same unless they bring out a revised version. It’s the same with any art form‌—‌music, paintings, sculpture, films. But this ‘completed’ work can be digested by different people at different times. It can bring forth different emotions or lead to different thoughts. Every person who reads a book experiences something unique. And even re-reading a book can be a new experience.

people-2557508_640

As we grow, we develop, learning and understanding more, and our appreciation for things changes. The books we read ten, fifteen, thirty years ago might contain the same words in the same order that they did when we first picked them up, but if we re-read these words today we experience something totally different. Our interpretation is not only tinged with nostalgia, but also with our different perspective on life, our different personality. It’s part of the reason why books we loved as children can sometimes seem flat when we read them as adults, and why books we struggled to get into a few years ago can later become favourite reads full of meaning and excitement.

We never simply read words. We absorb them, run them through our experiences, our own unique thoughts. We take those marks on page or screen, and we breathe life into them.

The writer takes a story, moulds it, and lays its foundations on the page. But the reader brings it to life.

My reading challenge for 2019

Over 2018, I took part in the Goodreads reading challenge, setting myself a target of 50 books the year. As I generally get through one or two books a week, I knew this was easily achievable, and I ended up with 83 completed books by the end of December.

But what does that mean?

Loads of books!Looking back at the list, most of the titles are just names of books. I can’t recall what happened in many of the stories, and I only have a vague idea of my thoughts on them. Yes, some stick in my mind‌—‌I enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and I’m still impressed at how Barry Hutchison can produce such entertaining and well-written Space Team books at such a fast rate. Andy Weir’s Artemis was good (and, more importantly, was definitely different to The Martian, proving that his first book wasn’t a fluke), and I loved China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, both for the writing and the world-building. Way back at the start of the year I read Marcus Sakey’s Afterlife, and I recall being pleasantly surprised at the twists and turns in the story.

But the rest? Recollections of enjoying some, and maybe a few vague ideas regarding the actual stories, but generally not much else.

Of course, I don’t expect to remember everything I read, but I started thinking back to how I chose these books. Some were titles I specifically wanted to read (and this includes all the ones I’ve mentioned above), but for the others, I believe two factors were at the front of my mind, both influenced by this reading challenge. I chose many of the books over 2018 based on length and complexity. If I was vying between a few titles, I’d automatically lean toward shorter books as well as those that appeared easier.

checklist-1643784_640See, I chose books primarily because I wanted to complete the challenge, and it’s easier to read more books if they are shorter and not too taxing. I veered toward light reads that would only take a couple of days.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these types of books‌—‌reading fiction is primarily about entertainment, and I use it as a way of relaxing, so short periods of escapism are fine.

But a diet of only popcorn isn’t good. In between the lighter reads I should have been diving into more demanding works (like Perdido Street Station). As a writer, I should have used some of my reading to stretch my understanding of story and writing. As someone who reads, I should have sunk into at least a few texts that forced me to concentrate to a higher degree.

A number of years ago I told myself that I would read all of Honore de Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (not in the original French, I hasten to add). This is a collection of about ninety titles, ranging from short stories to 500-page novels, and one thing I’ve found from the ones I’ve read is that the writing is dense. Paragraphs can stretch over many pages, and descriptions can be very detailed. There is a huge cast of characters who reappear in different titles, so keeping track of everyone is a challenge. They’re not easy reading.

I’m about a quarter of the way through, and I’ve found something to enjoy in each story. But I haven’t read any Balzac for a couple of years now. Especially over 2018, I’ve been distracted by shorter, lighter books.

This needs to change.

I have a growing list of other books I want to read, and other authors who I want to explore. There’s Brandon Sanderson’s long books (I was very impressed with the first Mistborn book, and promised myself I’d read more), and more by Joe Abercrombie. I have a number of Peter F Hamilton books on my Kindle. A few years ago I downloaded tons of out-of-copyright classics, and there are many of these that I feel I should read, including Jane Austen (I tried once, but never got more than a few pages in.)

literature-3324024_1280So, for 2019, I have a new reading challenge. Yes, I’m still going to read light, fun stuff (I’ve started the year with Ben Aabronovitch and Mark Dawson‌—‌both fine writers who produce great escapism for the reader), but I’m also going to push myself. I’m not going to treat books as a tick-list to get through. I’m going to give myself the time each book deserves.

I’ve still set a Goodreads challenge, though (again for fifty books), but I’ve done this as a means of keeping track of what I’ve read. I could use a simple list or spreadsheet, but Goodreads displays the covers of books I’ve read, which makes looking back far easier.

I’m confident I’ll reach fifty books again, but this year it will include a wider range. This year, I’m going to read like I mean it.

 

A small change to my reading habits

Habits build up over time, often without conscious thought. I like to read before I go to sleep, but I also read at other times. Most recently, this has included a decent length of time when I get in from work (grab a bite to eat and a drink, and sit down with a book for a good half-hour or more), as well as ten minutes while eating breakfast. I sometimes get more time in during the day, but that depends on what else is happening, and the three times mentioned above (breakfast, after work, before sleep) are pretty regular.

kindle-2616647_1280A few weeks back, I started reading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, but straight away I ran into a problem‌—‌the chapters were too long.

This needs an explanation.

I’ve never felt comfortable stopping reading just anywhere. I always aim to finish a chapter, or at least to reach a section break. Stopping mid-flow feels wrong. In a well-written book, the chapters and sections are part of the structure of the story‌—‌the writer chose to change scene, or to provide a break, for a particular reason. I can recall hearing Brandon Sanderson (I think it was on his Writing Excuses podcast) talking about wanting the reader to take a break at the end of each chapter‌—‌each chapter is it’s own mini-story, and needs to be assimilated before continuing to the next mini-story.

In the same way, I don’t enjoy watching films in sections either, or listening to only part of a piece of music. I need to experience the work as the creator intended.

So when I started The Blade Itself (The First Law Book One), I knew I’d want to give each chapter the time it deserved. This wasn’t a problem when reading before sleep‌—‌I had some flexibility in this. Likewise, after work, I could continue reading until I’d reached the end of a chapter.

But over breakfast, my time is limited‌—‌I have to be out of the house by a certain time in order to get to work. I wouldn’t have time to necessarily read complete chapters.

One of the things I love about my Kindle is how it tells me how many minutes reading is left in each chapter, and I could’ve used this. I could have made sure that when I stopped reading at night, I did so with a shorter chapter coming up, one that I could get through in ten minutes‌—‌but what if I was in the midst of some very long chapters? I could have pushed through the chapter in the morning, skim-reading‌—‌but I wanted to enjoy these books, and that included the writing itself. I could have simply read in the hope that a scene-break would appear at a sensible time‌—‌but what if it didn’t?

Then I found my solution.

I don’t only read fiction. Since starting writing, I’ve been reading more and more books about writing‌—‌the craft itself, marketing, mindset, and anything else related to publishing. These books often have some kind of narrative flow, but that’s secondary to the information. Also, non-fiction tends to be written in shorter, easily-digestible chunks‌—‌ideal for reading when you only have a few minutes spare.

You can probably see where this is going.

I now have two books on the go at any one time. I read fiction when I have longer stretches of time, enabling me to immerse myself in the story as the writer intended. But I also have a non-fiction book on the go at the same time. I use my phone for these books (either using the Kindle app or a pdf reader, as some of these books I only have in that format), which has another advantage‌—‌if I have a spare couple of minutes (for instance, if I’m waiting to pick one of the kids up from an activity) I can consume another short section of non-fiction.

It’s only a small alteration to how I read, but I can see the advantages already. I won’t be as ready to put longer-chapter books aside for ‘later’ (so I’ll finally get round to all those Brandon Sanderson books sitting on my to-be-read list), and I’ll also be getting a little bit of ‘learning’ in each day from the non-fiction.

Always good to find a win-win solution!

The Importance of Reading Part 4: Living Other Lives

 

There’s a quote I’ve seen a lot recently:

I’m a reader, not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many.

It’s a great antidote to all those broad-brush stereotypes of readers being boring, but what does it actually mean? When we read, we’re transported into new worlds, and experience new characters. But it’s just entertainment, isn’t I? It’s fun while it lasts, but we have to return to the real world at some point. That written world has no bearing on our own lives, right?

Wrong.

Think for a moment how we learn about the world. As babies and toddlers we learn through exploring‌—‌sticking things in our mouths, reaching out and touching things, and so on. But we also learn from those around us. The way we view the world is initially very much influenced by those close to us, and for a baby that generally means family.

But as we grow, we meet others, especially at school. We pick up on their world-views, and our understanding develops. Most parents, though, send their children to schools that reflect their own world-view in some way. This can happen as a deliberate choice (as with faith schools) or by accident (as most people live in areas where others are similar to themselves.)

human-1602493_1280When a child is older, they might move away to university or college. They’re independent(ish) now, free to mix with a far wider variety of people. This means an explosion of new experiences, and the opportunity to see the world from so many different viewpoints. But, in that stage between childhood and true adulthood, our brains are still developing. We’re still discovering who we are and how we fit in, and we’re especially open to all these new stimuli.

It’s no wonder that people are more likely to become involved in political and social activism during these years, or that people travel to far-off places, way outside their comfort zones, to ‘find themselves’.

Eventually, we (kind of) figure out what we want in life, and we settle down somewhere we feel comfortable‌—‌which usually means being surrounded by those whose ideas and ideals chime with our own. Maybe we have a family of our own, and our world-views are passed on to a new generation.

But the world never stops changing, and unless we want to risk being left behind, we need to change with it. We need to be constantly adapting our world-view.

Think of the way some older people say things that make us cringe-worthy. Of course, they see nothing wrong with what they’re saying, because that is how they see the world, and how they have done for decades.

So how do we keep developing? The best way is to experience more of the world. Some people do this through travel, although that takes time and money. But another way of experiencing this is in reading. Through books, we are thrust into the lives of others, in situations we’ve never encountered before. So many diverse authors bring us storied and characters that reflect their experiences, and of course these are different to our own.

If the book is well-written, we start to grow in our understanding‌—‌of what it means to live in a different society, of what it feels like to belong to a minority (or a majority), of how people cope with issues we’ve never had to face. And we can use that understanding in our own lives.

A staunch pacifist reads a book about soldiers and, although they may still believe their stance is morally correct, they gain an insight into a different point of view. Then, the next time they find themselves in an argument on the rights and wrongs of violence, they are able to show more empathy for those who believe that violence can be an answer. And maybe that’s enough to turn a potential shouting match into an intelligent debate.

These different world-views don’t have to be overtly expressed in books, though. In fact, I often find books that tackle ‘issues’ head-on come across as preachy, but a great story that has characters who are not all like me allows me to broaden my experiences I might not be able to relate to, for example, a transexual Asian youngster struggling with their identity, but I can relate to a character having problems at work, even if they also happen to be a transexual Asian youngster struggling with their identity.

A good example of this (not a book, admittedly, but it’s still story) is the TV series Brooklyn Nine-Nine. As a comedy, it’s primary aim is to make us laugh. As stories, each episode is designed to give a satisfying viewing experience. But by including diverse characters it can nudge a viewer into changing their world-view. This is perhaps best highlighted in Captain Holt, a black, gay man in an interracial relationship, but he’s a person first. I can’t directly relate to him having a same-sex partner, or of being a police captain, but I can relate to him getting frustrated with his co-workers. I can relate to him having disagreements with others, or of feeling tired, or happy, or many of the other things people do. And because I can relate to a part of him, it is easier to accept those parts that are different.

man-1461448_1280Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books show another way this vicarious experience can broaden our perceptions of others. Many of the characters in these books are morally ambiguous. One example it Sand dan Glokta, a torturer who obtains information through any means necessary. He appears to have no remorse for his actions, even when he knows he is drawing a confession from someone who is innocent.

And yet, Glokta is himself a victim of torture, and his body is a wreck. Every step is a struggle, he’s in constant pain, and he can no longer take solid food. So did he become a torturer because of his past or in spite of it? What drives him?

As the reader is drawn into Glokta’s mind, these questions naturally arise, and our minds seek answers. It doesn’t matter if we like him or despise him‌—‌as we read we start to understand him a bit more.

Tyrion Lannister, from George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire books, functions in a similar way, although he is maybe more sympathetic than Glokta. Tyrion is looked down on (figuratively and metaphorically) by many in the books‌—‌and who hasn’t experienced something like this before? We have a point of reference, so when he does things that we see as morally wrong, we try to understand his reasoning. Like many characters in well-written books, Tyrion’s character is not one-dimensional, and this is true of every one of us. Through becoming immersed in the fictional world of Glokta or Tyrion (or Captain Holt), we develop the ability to better see more facets of characters in our own, non-fictional world. Through experiencing many lives through reading, we are better able to make sense of a world that, all too often, seems random and violent.

So reading is important because it enables us to experience far more of life than we can otherwise, and that teaches us about our own lives. As Albert Camus said,

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.


Previous posts in this series are:

Part 3 : Imagination

Part 2: Concentrate!

Part 1: Slow Down

The Importance of Reading Part 3: Imagination

 

photo-manipulation-1825450_1280We live in a very visual world, so it is no surprise that technology has enabled us to manipulate and create images to such a high standard. Just think of films and games today, and the way they place characters in worlds so fantastically rendered that they leave our own seem flat by comparison. Combine that with state-of-the-art sound design, and place all that within a narrative structure (be that passive or active), and it is no wonder that so many people are drawn to the spectacle and the immersion of films and games.

Yet reading is still a popular activity. There are many (myself included) who would rather spend an evening with a novel than watching a film. We get more (or maybe a different kind of) enjoyment from words on a page than from moving images on a screen, even when they are accompanied by dialogue, music and sound effects.

Our minds are incredible. From a few words, we can conjure a whole scene‌—‌and we are not only limited to visuals. We can read a short scene set in a cafe, and in our minds we taste the bitterness of the coffee, we feel the softness of the sponge in the cakes. We hear the accents of those around, muffled by the sizzling of a frying pan and the gurgling of a coffee machine. We feel the muggy heat and the cold air that washes in when someone opens the door. And we add details of our own too‌—‌the man at the next table has a shaving cut by his left ear, the woman just leaving has her coat buttoned up wrong, someone has put a wet spoon in the sugar bowl and there is a congealed lump in one corner.

And this scene will be unique to us. Someone else, reading exactly the same words, will see, hear, smell, touch, taste something different.

It’s called imagination, and it’s a big part of what makes us human.

lego-708088_1280It’s also very natural. When children play, their games are filled with imagination‌—‌a few scraps of coloured paper get placed in a wooden box, and they become a meal to be shared with friends no adult can see. A few stuffed toys have adventures in far-flung places without ever leaving the four walls of the bedroom. Tiny cars travel a world that is only flat to our eyes‌—‌to the child, it is a vast city, filled with people going about their strange and wonderful lives.

Imagination is more than inventing world‌—‌it is a way to understand the world we live in. If we do not know how something works, we use our imaginations to search for a possible answer, and then we test that answer. In a situation we’re unfamiliar with, we use our imagination to play through different outcomes. Imagination allows us to as ‘what if‍…‍?’ And that is the question that leads to so, so much.

Albert Einstein said:

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.’

When Henry Ford was asked what he thought of asking customers for their opinions, said:

‘If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.’

Imagination allows us to break free from the regular world and leap to new ideas. Think of any invention‌—‌central heating, the printing press, Facebook, the lightbulb‌—‌and you will find imagination at their genesis. Throughout history, milestones have occurred because people with imagination asked ‘what if?’ and followed where that question led them.

We see those who invent and discover these wonders as geniuses, and we admire them. We believe we can never be like them.

But why can’t we? Maybe we don’t have the theoretical knowledge, or the design skills, or other specialised knowledge, but if their ideas came from their imagination, we have that, don’t we? Yes, we might have grown out of the habit of using it, putting off ‘childish play’ when the adult world seemed to demand more certainty, but imagination is not in finite supply. We can develop our imagination, just as we can develop our memories, or our muscles. The more we use our imagination, the stronger it becomes. Then, when we are in a new place or an unfamiliar situation, we can use our imagination to see possibilities, and to guide us. Maybe, our imagination will show us a way of combining ideas, or will hint at a way of filling a gap in our own lives and the lives of others. Maybe, if we allow our imagination to run, we can see something special.

octopus-1235006_1280So it is useful to develop our imaginations, and one of the best ways of doing this is through reading. When we watch films we can be passive, letting the story flood over us. But when reading, we have to use our imaginations. Those squiggles on the page need translating into scenes and characters and actions.

But the development of our imaginations doesn’t end with the reading itself. A good story draws us in, and we are there, inside the narrative, living vicariously through the characters. We start to imagine how we would act. We imagine what we might do differently. Sometimes, if a story stays with us for long enough, our imaginations build a whole world around it.

Fan-fic is an example of this‌—‌people who are so immersed in their favourite story-worlds that they create brand new stories, taking the characters to places the original writer probably never imagined. And then, maybe, the imagination continues, and the reader develops new characters and settings, and imagines original stories of their own (or, if you believe there are only a limited number of stories in the world, they imagine original retellings of these stories.)

So if you do not want to read to relax, or read to improve your concentration, then read to develop your imagination.

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.

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.