When was the last time you sat down and had a good old fashioned reading session – and I don’t mean a quick flick through the Sunday supplement to check what time your favourite soap was on – I mean a thoroughly relaxing, all consuming, time stealing, self-indulgent, can’t put-downable read? The kind of read where you sit in your favourite chair just after lunch and, before you know it, you realise you need to put the lights on because it has got dark without you noticing!
I love to read. I’ve always loved to read. I was the kid at school who would much rather have sat in the playground under a tree with a good book (or in the library if the temperature was below Mediterranean) whilst all around me played TAG and What’s the time Mr Wolf? I’ve always loved the escapism that books can provide, the way your imagination can transport you to faraway places, where young kids can solve mysteries from notes written in invisible ink and the hero always wins the girl. My bedroom was my library; I remember cataloguing all of my reading books on my bedroom shelves, painstakingly making little numbered stickers for the spines, recording the numbers in my ‘librarians’ record book, before lining the books up like soldiers on parade – I was quite the book geek!
I can literally lose whole days in a good book. My poor husband is a long-suffering book widow; if I am not reading books, I am writing them! He once remarked, after a lovely holiday to Lake Garda, that he had become wholly acquainted with the top of my head; I think I had read seven books on that holiday! Reading can bring such pleasure. It is the medium through which we acquire new learning, how we relax, how we fight boredom on the daily commute, how we settle our children for bedtime, how we take time for ourselves.
It is believed that the world’s first novel was written by a Japanese woman known as Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century. It was a 54 chapter story called ‘The Tale of Genji’ and was all about courtly seduction, so even in the 11th century the hero still got his girl – perhaps a 2000 year old version of Fifty Shades?
But don’t take my word for it, there is some actual science that can explain why reading feels so good; apart from the undeniable pleasure of avoiding the housework or the weekly shop. MRI scans showed that, as tension in a novel increased, more and more areas of the brain lit up with activity. Delving into the inner lives of characters in a story, leads to an increased ability to understand the beliefs and feelings of others; recognising character traits of our favourite heroes and heroines in the everyday people that we encounter, can help us to empathise… villains may prove trickier! Think Nancy and Bill Sykes, Bonnie and Clyde, Moriarty and Holmes, Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy…
Perhaps one of the most amazing benefit of reading, is its ability to alleviate the symptoms of depression. People with depression often feel isolated and estranged from everyone else; temporarily escaping your own world when all feels dark, can be a sweet relief, no matter how temporary. Getting swept away with your favourite character can be very therapeutic and let’s not forget, all the many non-fiction self-help books that can provide lots of strategies to manage symptoms.
It seems also that when it comes to reading; size really does matter! The more you read, the larger your vocabulary becomes, and this can positively influence many areas of your life from standardised tests, to college admissions and job opportunities. Reading can also help to reduce the lesions and plaques found in the brains of people with dementia in their later lives – an active mind, just like an active body, really can operate better for longer.
Just 30 minutes of reading can lower blood pressure in the same way as yoga or humour – just imagine if you could get your hands on a book about funny stuff whilst practising your downward dog! It is also a great way to wind down before bedtime and can actually help you to drop off, although perhaps a cautionary note about your reading material…The Exorcist may lead to far less sweeter dreams than Pride and Prejudice!
Reading is a not-so-guilty pleasure; it is cheap (in most cases a book is less than the cost of a couple of trendy coffees), and readily accessible. Since the internet entered our lives, it has never been so easy to order or read a book. No longer are our favourite stories carved in tablets of stones or adorning the walls of caves; but they can be enjoyed – like the good old martini – anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Personally, I love the feel of book. I love the smell of the paper, the glossy feel of the cover, the way the pages curl beneath my fingers; but I will happily catch up on my favourite novel, squinting at the tiny screen on my mobile phone, as I while away the time waiting for the ‘next patient please’ sign to light up with my name. And the great thing is, that the act of reading is far more important than what you read – the benefits are the same, whether you read romance or realism, suspense or satire, humour or horror.
In short, reading is good for you! And what else can you do in life that costs around a fiver, brings pleasure without stress, and involves sitting on a comfy chair, feet up, ignoring the world, whilst your brain grows more magnificent with every hour spent?