Keiran's World World by word by word

Literature is good for brains and communities

Photo © r. nial bradshaw, via flickr and Creative Commons; rnialbradshaw@yahoo.com

Today, the email from a commemorative-days website announces, is Read a Book Day.

Our protagonist lights mental fireworks. “Hooray! A day devoted to conspicuous reading pleasure.”

Then she notices the email’s next line. Today is also Fight Procrastination Day.

Her heart clenches. Our protagonist’s preferred avoidance of unpleasant tasks includes burying herself in a good book.

Her frontal lobe tries to reconcile the mixed messaging and replan her day. Should she read? Or should she stop procrastinating and write a newspaper column?

She sighs. Perhaps today was designed for those who usually seek to avoid reading books.

Tomorrow, the email continues, is Buy a Book Day.

Our protagonist scratches her pointy head. “Wouldn’t one buy a book first, then read it?” she wonders. “Or is the book I’m to read today supposed to be the one I was instructed to buy last year?” She briefly imagines a land where people buy books and leave them unread for 364 days, but the idea is too foreign. It is too, um, novel.

She continues reading. The book-themed prod seems designed to provide a prologue for The Main Event. Tuesday is International Literacy Day.

Tuesday, as students and their parents know, as those who commute know, and as our protagonist knows, is also when thousands of children across B.C. begin or renew their (hopefully happy) formal training in deciphering the mysteries of the written word.

Statistics Canada indicates that the number of Canadian adults with low literacy scores (1 and 2 out of a scale of 5) increased from 2003 to 2012—a damning statistic for a G7 country. The link between International Literacy Day and the first day of school becomes clearer, with only 22 per cent of adults who left school before finishing grade 12 attaining adequate literacy skills. British Columbia’s literacy rate exceeds the national average, but much work remains to be done.

Our complex, increasingly information-driven world depends on people being able to read and understand text and numbers, then apply that information. Literacy—and numeracy, literacy’s number-oriented sibling—open the doors to well-paid, steady jobs, further education, better access to health care, and increased quality of life.

At which point, our protagonist recalls encountering recent studies into less-obvious benefits of reading. She remembers, in particular, reading about short- and long-term effects of reading on readers’ brains, social skills, and even personalities.

One study, which scanned the brains of reading people, found that reading provides aerobic exercise to 17 different brain regions, and increased density, extent and speed of brain-cell networks within the brain—essential for maintaining mental efficiency and brain health throughout life. Other studies suggest that, after finishing a good novel, readers enjoy these effects for several days.

Other research shows that reading brings on relaxation. Reading for just six minutes can lower stress levels by 68 per cent. In contrast, going for a walk reduced stress levels by 42 per cent. The type of story doesn’t seem to matter, provided it engrosses the reader.

A number of other studies indicate reading Literature—with a capital L—increases an individual’s social competency. Literature comprises compelling, believable plots and well-developed, complex characters whose feelings and motivations are only vaguely sketched. It requires readers to put themselves in characters’ shoes, infer motivations, and to tune into emotional nuance and complexity—the same social-functioning tasks that are required when dealing with real (complex) people in (messy) daily life. Reading literary stories increases readers’ empathy, social perception, mental inference, and emotional intelligence.

Other studies suggest that frequently reading literary fiction from a young age hones those social skills. It provides safe opportunities for the brain to practice empathy and emotional intelligence, and—as with all skills—practice improves performance when the skills are called for in real life.

Our protagonist muses that a highly literate population makes not only for productive economies and healthy, informed individuals—it makes for more socially cohesive and emotionally healthier communities. These are all good reasons ensure reading skills—and Literature—remain priorities in B.C.’s school curricula.

And now that the column is written, our protagonist plans to fight procrastination by reading a book.

—30—

A version of this editorial appears in the September 6, 2015, Victoria Times Colonist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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