A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Why It All Matters

Allow me to stray slightly off-topic -- though of course, it's all connected -- to why writing and reading matter.

Though the reasons seem obvious, articulating them off the top of one's head can lead to mental stuttering. Why else does the question arise perennially? Think of all those writers trying to justify spending so many hours of their lives playing with words that may -- or may never -- be read, never mind generate any income. Or for that matter, readers explaining to their partner, parent, or maybe even boss, why they wasted an entire afternoon reading a novel when they could have been doing something productive. On an institutional level, librarians are routinely asked to clarify why taxpayers should support and even encourage consumption of all that writing. Information is okay, but that made-up stuff -- who needs it?

Turns out, we all do.

Those of us who love to read and write already know this instinctively. But two recent articles provide scientific evidence that reading is measurably good for us. And not just informational reading, but fiction.

An article in the Science section of The Guardian reports that a study at Emory University found "reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory." These neurological changes persisted, as measured by brain scans taken for five days after students finished reading a page-turner novel. Not only does reading an engaging piece of fiction transport us imaginatively, but it improves our brain functioning!

I can't tell you how much I love this.

In October Science published an article titled "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," which they define as "understanding others' mental states" and identify as "a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies." In other words, reading literary fiction develops empathy. Anyone think the world could use more of that?

Then I came across the poem "Hospital Writing Workshop" by Rafael Campo (thanks to Poem-A-Day on Because both my daughters work directly in the trenches of the medical system, and because of the incursion of cancer into my household this past year, this poem hit home more than many. Campo, a practicing physician, writes in his note about the poem, "I have witnessed first hand the power of writing poetry in abetting healing -- poetry is able to name when the diagnosis eludes us, it calls us into community when symptoms makes (sic) us feel isolated or alone or even silenced, it engenders empathy when the doctor would distance himself -- it even allows us to transcend our mortality by creating something that endures on the page long after we're gone."

Healing, empathy (again), community, transcendence -- all resulting from words put together in writing and reading.

So the next time someone brings up the subject of why reading and writing matter, consider forgoing the usual arguments about literacy as an essential foundation for successful democracy and economic prosperity; or success in school; or even improved reading scores. Explain that reading and writing are necessary for brain development, empathy, healing, community, and transcendence. In short, for living -- and dying -- well.


  1. hello Ann,
    Interesting parallels in healing and learning through reading and writing. Here in the trenches, I see how powerful a good book/story can be to learning and memory. Thank you for these articles! and for you-additional research on the importance of writing by hand in this NY Times article:

    1. Hi Tracey! Thanks for the article. I've heard that schools aren't spending much time on handwriting these days and wondered about the implications of that. I know that for me, writing words out by hand has always helped me remember both the words and the concepts they represent, especially when learning a language or studying for a test. And when I'm beginning a poem or story, I almost always work initially with pencil and paper. It feels like there's a more direct connection to the part of the brain that deals with inspiration and creativity. Maybe it's just habit but that's how it works for me.