Sunday, February 5, 2012

On Reading

"So many books, so little time..."
          -- t-shirt from Vassar bookstore

     During the past few days I have reconnected with a treasured friend. Reading. More specifically, reading for pleasure. Actually, that's not really specific enough, for I almost always enjoy reading. Reading for me.
     I read a great deal. Just yesterday, two incidents reminded me of just how much I read. Someone said she has stopped sending me recommendations because I seem already to have read whatever she sends me. Then I mentioned something I had read, and someone in the room said, "Don't you ever sleep?" (Probably not enough.) I have had my Kindle for about a year, and it has eight pages of titles. I don't actually download a book until i am ready to read it. Plus my wish list on Amazon keeps growing. We have overflowing bookcases in almost every room of the house; my office at school has two. In fact, I bought the Kindle to save money and space. The habit isn't limited to books. The list of blogs I try to follow in my aggregator keeps lengthening. I mainly skim those unless something really grabs me, but it still involves some reading. Then there are all the things I wish I had the time and energy to read.
     But here's the thing. For the last several years, just about everything I've read somehow has been primarily for work. Since I am passionate about my work and find it fascinating, I really don't mind this.  The reading is still quite pleasurable.
     Last Sunday, however, an article in the newspaper inspired to decide my next book would be just for me. I wanted to read it right away. It is Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.
     As a raging introvert, I am naturally drawn to reading. It's not that introverts are shy and/or anti-social, ready to run for a hermitage when an evite pings into the inbox. We actually really like engaging with people, particularly small groups in deep conversation. We even can handle big, noisy parties...for a while. Then we have to retreat. In many ways it comes down to how one draws his or her energy, and what drains it. Introverts devour ideas and reflection and solitude like Popeye downs spinach.
     Along with my innate tendencies, my parents fostered my love of reading in a perfect blend of nature and nurture. Early on I celebrated over and over the triumph of Yurtle the Turtle and craved a dish of green eggs and ham. Once I could read more than picture books, I loved a volume about great athletes, with dramatic photos and tales of record-setting feats. A trip to the New Rochelle library always was paired with time at the adjacent park. When we moved to Bedford Village, the library was a converted colonial home, full of small rooms and nooks. I slowly worked my way through the collection, and I recall my great pride when I began selecting from the adult side. Later I was delighted to discover The Remarkable Little Bookstore in Westport, which had the same sort of set-up. (Alas, it was an early victim of the invasion of the big box stores.) When I first moved to Dallas in 1990, the old flagship Half-Price Books on NW Highway, with its uneven floors and random shelves, felt like returning home. And home, besides the library trips, was where my parents modeled a love of reading. Most nights Mom had a mystery novel; Dad, a tale of espionage or a historical work of some sort. I remember how even as my father lay dying of cancer that had eaten into his brain, he kept reading. He wanted to keep learning all he could.
     My parents did many things right. Among them, helping me love reading is one for which I am particularly grateful. Now, as an educator, I consider it perhaps the most important intellectual habit parents and teacher must nurture. Think of it as follows:
     Open the cover of a book or flip on an e-reader. Voila! That easily you tap into the most elementary form of access to learning. Ideas, exposure, information, data, opposition, affirmation, expansion, connection--all this and more can happen when you really engage with the written word. I still find it utterly amazing how various combinations of 26 letters (in English) can lead to an endless variety of writing, each piece capable of taking us someplace different. Thus, while reading provides simple access, it also is remarkably complex. In fact, neurological studies have revealed that the only time the brain is more active than when we read is when we dream. That's not surprising. After all, the two are highly similar activities. Reading thus provides mental exercise, be it a series of short sprints or a grueling marathon through the world of ideas. We now know that intelligence is not fixed and that we can keep rewiring and strengthening synapses throughout our lives. 
     Reading is a party for we introverts; and, if they don't already attend, I invite any extroverts to drop by, at least for a little while. We may be at opposite ends on the Myers-Briggs scale, but it's a middle ground where we both can find plenty of what everyone needs. To those of you already in on the fun, I'd love some suggestions.

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