A Good Life

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

(Born April 30, 1945)

Is it relatable?

"Relatable" is in the eye of the beholder, but its very nature is to represent itself as universal. It's shorthand that masquerades as description. 

The problem arises when "relatability" becomes the sole interpretive lens.

Can you "relate" to being enslaved, for example?  Probably not, but that should make the prospect of reading Frederick Douglass all the more enticing. Many popular texts printed in the United States before the 20th century dwell on religious thought in a way that seems strange to us now. How can nonreligious people living in the 21st century "relate" to that mindset? The realization "I don't relate to that" could be followed by a subsequent self-examination: "What is it about my life, and my time, that has made it so that I don't really get it?"

Rebecca Onion writing in Slate

There’s a tiger over there!

“Everybody is fighting for your attention, so your only real defense is to make it so that those stimuli don’t come in the door,” says Boston University cognitive neuroscientist David Somers. The idea that your technology should alert you when it thinks you should pay attention is relatively new (push alerts only really became a thing in 2009), and, frankly, it’s a big step backward. To use the earlier metaphor, you’re letting the bushes rustle nonstop, and telling yourself there’s a tiger over there.

“It’s so important that we define where we want to go as opposed to letting technology drive us and we’re just hanging on for dear life,” says author Amy Blankson, who works in the filed of positive psychology, specifically on maximizing happiness.

Still, everyone gets a buzz from this high-octane news environment. Literally. Every notification, every tweet, every beep and buzz releases dopamine and other neurochemicals, providing a moment’s elation. As with any drug, your brain gets used to it. Perhaps even craves it. “Even when you’re really on your best behavior and you’re like ‘OK I’m going to close my web browser, I’m going to shut off my phone,’ you still have this internal need for that feedback,” says Somers.

Reclaim control of what you read.

Emily Dreyfuss, Wired

Bridging the Generation Gap with Reading

And then one day, she asked him what he was reading. He had just started “The Hunger Games,” a series of dystopian young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins. The grandmother decided to read the first volume so that she could talk about it with her grandson the next time they chatted on the phone. She didn’t know what to expect, but she found herself hooked from the first pages, in which Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the annual battle-to-the-death among a select group of teens.

The book helped this grandmother cut through the superficialities of phone chat and engage her grandson on the most important questions that humans face about survival and destruction and loyalty and betrayal and good and evil, and about politics as well. Now her grandson couldn’t wait to talk to her when she called—to tell her where he was, to find out where she was and to speculate about what would happen next.

Will Schwalbe, Books for Living

I’m on a search

At the trial in which he would be sentenced to death, Socrates (as quoted by Plato) said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone. It is a solitary activity that connects you to others.

So I’m on a search—and have been, I now realize, all my life—to find books to help me make sense of the world, to help me become a better person, to help me get my head around the big questions that I have and answer some of the small ones while I’m at it.

Will Schwalbe,  Books for Living

If it’s powerful enough to distract you, harness it’s power

People often ask me “What are some great books to buy?” My response is usually “The ones you’ll actually read.” Doing a bunch of activities that you think are important will almost always be less impactful than doing the stuff that genuinely fires you up. It’s hard to be great at the stuff that you have to work hard just to tolerate.

Pay attention to the side projects and hobbies that no one needs to pay you for. Pay attention to the stuff that doesn’t have to be mandatory in order for you to be motivated to do it. Pay attention to the stuff that keeps you awake at night not because of fear and obligation, but because you’re always fantasizing about it. That’s where your advantage is.

TK Coleman, 5 Ways to Steal Like An Artist

open a book and get open

Want someone you know to get past their rigid thinking and increase their openness? Put a novel in their hands. Canadian researchers say it will help them become more sophisticated thinkers with greater creativity. University of Toronto students were asked to read either one of eight short stories or one of eight essays. Afterward, they each filled out a survey to measure the desire for certainty and stability. The short story readers had much lower scores on that test than those who read the essays. The fiction readers showed needed less order and more comfort with ambiguity. This was particularly true for participants who regularly read. Writing in the Creativity Research Journal, the researchers say, “Exposure to literature may offer a (way for people) to become more likely to open their minds.” Fiction readers will follow thinking styles that are different from their own—they can feel along with characters they may not even like—gaining a better understanding of the viewpoint. You can read the study here.

Stephen Goforth

the active brain

Being a bookworm, jotting down your thoughts and completing other tasks that keep your brain active may help you stay sharp in your later years.

A study published on July 3, 2013 in the journal Neurology revealed that reading, writing, and doing other mentally-stimulating activities at every age helped stave off memory problems.

"Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person's lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age," study author Robert S. Wilson said in a press release. Wilson is senior neuropsychologist of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Study participants who reported the most reading and writing later in life were able to slow their memory decline by 32 percent compared to people with average mental activity. Those who reported the lowest mental stimulation in their later years had a 48 percent faster memory decline compared to the average.

Read more from the BBC here

None of this is likely to happen when we’re scrolling through TMZ

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.

None of this is likely to happen when we’re scrolling through TMZ.com. Although we call the activity by the same name, the deep reading of books and the information-driven reading we do on the web are very different, both in the experience they produce and in the capacities they develop.

We should be concerned about how young people read, and not just whether they’re reading at all, it helps to know something about the way the ability to read evolved. “Human beings were never born to read,” notes Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Unlike the ability to understand and produce spoken language, which under normal circumstances will unfold according to a program dictated by our genes, the ability to read must be painstakingly acquired by each individual. The “reading circuits” we construct are recruited from structures in the brain that evolved for other purposes—and these circuits can be feeble or they can be robust, depending on how often and how vigorously we use them.

This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls “carnal reading” and “spiritual reading.” If we allow our offspring to believe that carnal reading is all there is—if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice—we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter. And we will have deprived them of an elevating and enlightening experience that will enlarge them as people.

Observing young people’s attachment to digital devices, some progressive educators and permissive parents talk about needing to “meet kids where they are,” molding instruction around their onscreen habits. This is mistaken. We need, rather, to show them someplace they’ve never been, a place only deep reading can take them.

Annie Murphy Paul, writing in the Brilliant Report