Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

On Reading for Entertainment and Brainpower

As I was pushing myself through THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood, I asked myself why I’d waited so long to read a really well written book. I began to wonder what good are reading skills in today’s Twitter world? When I was teaching, I discovered those who lack reading skills may also lack an ability to distinguish subtleties such as sarcasm or innuendo or to think critically. Meanwhile, some observers note that our population—constantly under stress—is growing lazier. Many refuse to try to understand abstract and complicated issues—which, unfortunately, may not discourage them from expressing opinions.

Little wonder, then, that book series in which each novel follows the template of every other novel are so popular. Genres are built on the concept that the customers can pick up a book and anticipate where it will take them—the McDonald’s hamburger idea in print. Such novels are designed for escape, which is a reasonable function. I’ve skimmed through escapist books for diversion, but after a while they feel like potato chips in my mind.

Recently, I received notice of an annual poetry festival. Poetry has many advantages. Its meanings and impacts are condensed. It requires thought, but it doesn’t require time—unless the reader wants to reread to relish further. I own several books of poetry, and I’d generally rather spend time alone with the print than have it read to me in a festival. I did see a professional performance of AN EVENING’S FROST long ago, and was dazzled by the nuances of emotion I had never noticed. Thinking is more important than reading when I peruse poetry. The brevity forces the reader to shoulder responsibility. Great poetry feels dense and rich like fudge in my mind. I limit my doses. Weak poetry feels like processed white bread.

For a few years, I entertained myself by writing screenplays. I love film—especially beautifully acted dimensional characters with superb dialogue, and I delighted in crafting the sleek plot structure. Speaking in visuals is a fascinating departure. A film is a brief time investment the viewer can process as deeply or superficially as she wishes—perfect for stimulating thought or merely happy escape. But watching demands less effort than reading. And the film versions of profound books cannot approach the same depth; they are elaborately packaged interpretations.

Reading mandates effort and takes time. At one of my book signings, an attendee told me she “reads” only audio books. I had to think about that. I once wrote a dissertation proposal about using audio books to help students with reading disabilities grasp content. I understand not everyone has the ability to decode and sequence written words in order to find meaning. But what about people who could but choose not to? They’re accepting someone else’s interpretation of the words. Their special interaction with the author’s words is changed by the presence of a third person—and limited to the author’s interpretation if the author is speaking.

I believe in reading. I think it’s like good nutrition—a full meal; it feeds you as a person. As much as I love reading nonfiction so I can dally, highlight, or skim as I wish, I love having a brilliant author telling me tales even more.

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