Look Both Ways: Reflecting on Reading

Cally Phillips offers a moving reminder about the power of reading; an activity that both taxes your brain and helps to relax it. Reading can be a challenging habit to form, but Cally talks us through the many benefits of reading.

Have you given up on your New Year resolutions yet?

It’s easy, especially when young, to spend all your time looking forward. The older you get, the more appealing looking back becomes - though often through sunspecs, dark or rose-tinted. But January is also a time many people fear. The dark after the sparkle. The payback after the party. The sense of it being a long time till spring.

January is named after Janus, the two headed god, which suggests it’s a month for looking both ways. Well, how about this January you look both ways in a different dimension. Resolution is all well and good but how about reflection. R&R. In this case, reflecting on reading.

If it’s true we live in a world where communication via words is reduced to 140 characters or less, attention span is (so I am told) seven seconds , I have probably lost many of you by this point.

I know that there are a hundred and one different things you can do with your precious time and reading is a pretty hard core time commitment. It’s also labour intensive on the brain. At least, for me it is.

Reading takes time and concentration. It’s not the easiest choice out - but it can be immeasurably rewarding.  It’s a valuable skill, learned in childhood, which many people then neglect through their adult life. Especially when it comes to fiction.

Big news from the land of reflection. Reading is not just for children. But it’s a different thing to read as an adult. As an adult you need to take ownership of your choices (and not just in reading matter). To really enjoy reading as an adult requires  the ability to make informed personal and individual choices, not just do as you are told. There are no set texts in the ‘real’ world.

How we read as children and adults is fundamentally different. We approach it from different perspectives and use it for different functions, and it’s all too easy to give up on reading because you never transition from a world where you are told what to read and how to read it. That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity.  While it may be true that how we consume our stories is something of a generational thing, engaging with narrative is, I believe, an important part of both mental health and the nurturing of the creative self.

To get the most from reading you must develop your personal reading ‘style.’ Figure out what it is you actually enjoy in a book. If you don’t know what you like, you are unlikely to find it. You never need to be bored reading, there’s more than enough books out there to suit every taste. It’s just a question of finding them. ‘Of all the books in all the world…’ (to misquote Casablanca) 

Advice? I have a simple two step strategy for life, which applies equally to reading. 

Step One: Find what you enjoy.

Step Two: Do it (in this case. read it!)

I’m not just talking about a particular author or genre. Think about what a book gives you. Reading is an intensely personal experience, and we are all different. My choices will not be yours. I’m a writer. For writers, reading is the breathing in to match the breathing out of writing. I offer my reasons solely as an example:

For me, words are the conduit through space-time into the brain of another human. They also allow me to think beyond the page.  Each sentence is like an idea offered by a mind outside my own, asking me to think - sometimes to agree, sometimes to be surprised by another perspective.  It’s more like talking than anything else. Without moving your lips. And I guess, really, it’s more like listening than talking. 

When we write we talk, when we read we listen (and hopefully learn). If you want to communicate with another human being - learning about them and yourself into the process - reading, to my mind, is hard to beat. And with a book you don’t even have to leave home to travel the world!

So, this January why not take some time to reflect for yourself on what it is you want from reading. Today we are cursed by an almost infinite choice,  so it’s up to you to narrow it down. How? You’ll need to do some research to help you make good personal choices. I recommend developing a mixed choice/search strategy that involves trying ‘free’ books, be they digital downloads and/or libraries. I encourage try before you buy where you can and only pay money for things you are confident you will appreciate.

I counsel against decisions based on any five star system, please. ‘Award winning’ and ‘best selling’ are most often marketing  terms designed to get you to purchase.  I suggest you be as discerning in your reading as you would be in your fashion style. Learn what you like, and keep pushing yourself to discover more. It’s fine to have the good old staples, even hanging on to some favourites from childhood. But as an adult why not challenge yourself. Find something new. Push out of your comfort zone from time to time. Getting reading fit means having a varied reading diet. It’s part of a healthy lifestyle.

And don’t look over your shoulder. Don’t go with the herd. Take recommendations, sure, but don’t be afraid to experiment. Be an individual. Remember there is no ‘authority’ in books. Not even ‘classics.’ They are all just choices. Reading is a habit that is perhaps hard to acquire, but it is that rare thing, a good habit.  Beyond that, getting lost in a book is a great way to find yourself. 

Take some R&R time and before you know it, spring will have sprung.