Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.
~Charles W. Eliot
We are losing the ability to read, really read. To escape into another world and become so deeply engrossed that we simply cannot put the book down – and this is a really big deal.
Our brains read a physical book different from how we read on-screen – it’s linear, therefore we process the words at a far deeper level, we focus much more and our brain gets time to calibrate the information and join it up with the other stuff already in there. This is really quite a lovely and enlightening experience. It does not feel overwhelming or stressful because it is not. Our brain is working at an optimum level, it has time to digest what’s coming its way and it gets to work at a pace set by itself, not external forces – unless, that is, you are at the school bus stop having forgotten to read the English text for your homework due in during the next hour.
So, reading deeply and attentively is really important at a mental, emotional, intellectual, and physical level, because if your brain is healthy, the rest of you probably will be too.
But we are living in an online world that is full of things specifically designed to screw our focus up. In this online world, there are thousands of brilliant people all working on lots of very, very clever algorithms, all aimed at doing one thing – to increase our level of engagement on whatever platform we happen to be on, not to encourage us to focus, learn more or better, or to give our brains a rest. So, our ability to read in a way that nourishes rather than harms our brain is severely hindered by an environment, which drives a propensity to speed read, always wanting to cut to the punch line which can often mean we miss the important nuanced messages embedded within text and stresses our brain by overloading it and taking away it’s time to absorb and do something worthwhile with the information. In addition to this, there are also lots of invisible gremlins surrounding us, all clamouring for our attention, often at a very sophisticated sub-conscious level, determined to pull us into their world and keep us there, well that is until another gremlin jumps up to grab our attention. And so we end up replacing deep, meaningful learning with toxic distractions that we are slowly but surely becoming completely and utterly addicted to.
And it becomes a vicious circle, the less we read, the less we are able to read – our brain in basically getting more and more unfit and unable to focus for any great length of time. For example, how many of you get the feeling of rumbling anxiety, restlessness and an inability to focus on a book when you go to start reading it, despite the fact that millions of others have brought said book and have all raved about it? How many of you are surrounded by lots of beautiful books, the majority of which remain unread? How many of you reminisce about the days of reading for hours on end, in complete peace and contentment (often known as a flow state), yet cannot seem to get past the first chapter of a book now, or even worse have it sat by your bedside as a constant reminder of that which you can no longer seem to do – simply read?
I don’t know about you, but I often feel stressed, overwhelmed, anxious about who knows what and completely knackered and yes some of this is because of a difficult menopause, my unique personality, circumstances, etc, but I’m coming to the conclusion that a lot of it, is actually a perfectly reasonable response to the environment I find myself in. I am constantly:
1. Bombarded by the news, some true, some not
2. Bombarded by distractions, some good, some not
3. Bombarded by toxic energy, polarised views, oversimplified headlines and stats, and lots and lots of ignorant, self-serving acts causing huge damage to people and the planet, seemingly completely out of my control.
So, yes I might get a bit stressed now and again and yes this might have an impact on my ability to focus which means I read less, I escape less and my brain rests less – all leading to guess what? Yes feeling a little more stressed, a little more of the time.
My brain simply cannot keep up with the world, there is far too much stuff coming my way, my brain is constantly stressed trying to process it all and so the inevitable happens – it breaks and processes nothing at all. I retreat into myself, search for the anti-depressants and go to bed.
And what on earth, might you ask has this got to do with reading?
Oh, so very much.
Reading was a joy, a desperately needed escape — I didn’t read to learn, I was reading to read.
The act of reading allows me to escape, to experience peace, to see the world differently, to feel another’s hope, love and inspiration but most of all, it allows me to nourish my brain with the food it needs, in the amounts it needs, at the pace it needs. It helps me to soothe and heal, what is often a very tired, polluted, and wounded part of myself, in a way that nothing else does. And I’m not sure I can fully explain why, but it is hugely therapeutic and I really think it’s something that can benefit us all.
Have you ever noticed the zen type of energy you encounter the minute you walk into a library or good-quality book store? The quiet almost ethereal appeal of librarians and book store employees who seem to have read every book on the shelves, be untouched by the manicness of the world you have just come from, and even move at a slow pace as they patiently take you to the right bookshelf or process your purchase/rental? The warm and welcoming smell of books, the way they seem to appeal to our senses as much as our minds, the beautiful collection of artwork on the book sleeves, and the wonderful array of subjects calmly presented to you, allowing you to peruse them at your leisure? I find it’s like walking into a surreal reality, a trip to a beautiful book shop or library does as much good for my mental health as a walk in the sunshine.
But over the years I’ve noticed that I am reading less and less and I miss it, I really do. So, I’ve embarked on a new reading regime which is made up of a ratio of 2 fiction books to 1 non-fiction book – that’s because studies show that people who read predominantly fiction books, tend to be more empathetic and can read others’ emotions far more easily. This is because at an individual level, we only get to experience a tiny part of the whole human experience, whereas fiction provides an amazingly diverse masterclass across all aspects of the human experience – the majority of which is not part of our reality and therefore difficult for us to understand and empathise with. But by reading fiction, we are immersed in another’s world and that broadens our perspective and understanding and enables us to become far more empathetic and far less judgemental, as we start to see the world through the eyes of another. Now that’s not to say that non-fiction is not good at all, in fact, I have many non-fiction writers and interestingly comedians, that have literally gifted me life-changing insights and inspiration, it’s just that fiction feeds my feeling mind whilst non-fiction feeds my thinking mind and it’s my feelings that often need the most nutrients.
Just as an aside, I actually believe that comedians are really master observers of human behaviour, using humour to help us see things we may not be able to without it, just watch Hannah Gadsby’s sunflower clip for an insight into anti-depressants and judgement if you don’t believe me, or the final scene of Ricky Gervais on his Humanity tour where he explains the real drive for his art, or Billy Connolly’s TV biography ‘It’s been a pleasure’ to understand how humility and love have made so many of us laugh for so long.
But I digress, so back to my new reading regime. I have to read part of a book – not online but a physical book, every day for a minimum of 10 minutes. I don’t have to finish the book and I can swap between books if I like, but I do need to completely devote myself to the chosen book for a full 10 minutes each day. I’ve found that turning all of my notifications off on my phone, putting my phone on silent and in another room and choosing a time of day when I’m not going to be interrupted by kids, dogs, deliveries or a hungry tummy has been hugely helpful – Johan Hari refers to this type of preparation as ‘pre-commitment’ in his amazing and life-changing new book ‘Stolen Focus’.
And it is going pretty well – I’ve been in training for just over a week and I’ve got through 3 books already, I’ve been lucky, I have not picked up a book that I have not wanted to carry on reading and having scheduled, protected time to read has reduced the anxiety surrounding the potential failure of this regime significantly. How ironic if I failed to meet my goal because I was so stressed by the thought of not reaching the goal, that I was unable to focus thereby creating a self-fulfilling reality.
And I have to say it’s been heaven – it only took me a day to get my attention and zest back for reading and the books I have read have given me more insight, inspiration and zest for life than I’ve felt in a long time. The list of articles I’ve yet to write is enormous as each chapter breathes new life into my waining creativity and the slower pace and deeper focus you get when reading a physical book, allows a whole new combination of dots to be drawn in my mind, therefore giving birth to lots of new insights and knowledge. Immersing myself in the characters and the plots has interestingly enough, allowed me to look at some of my own challenges and behaviours in a much more honest and detached way, thereby allowing me to make better and more authentic decisions and stepping out of my own world for a little while has allowed me to widen my perspective and the wider the perspective, the clearer the view.
And so I have reached the very important and straightforward conclusion that reading an actual book is really bloody important and that I’m going to stick with this regime.
I also thought I’d share the 3 books which have lead me to this conclusion and each in its own way, has changed my life for the better.
Stolen Focus, Johan Hari – nonfiction, completely brilliant, and I’d highly recommend you start with this book to take back control of your mind from the mad world we live in.
The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman – fiction, a great plot with so much insight into humanity, ageing, relationships, and kindness.
The one hundred years of Lenni and Margot, Marianne Cronin – fiction, you are in Ricky Gervais Afterlife territory here, so beautifully insightful, a wonderful story of life, love, loss, and ultimately a masterclass for us to face death with a little less fear and a little more love.
You want more creativity, diversity, innovation, compassion, and knowledge or to simply make your life a little more peaceful, content, and better – then you need to start reading books, I really think you do.