Thursday, September 16, 2004

Reading works brain, feeds soul, but try convincing public of that

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Karen Sandstrom

Plain Dealer Book Editor

Spend an hour a day at the gym and get six-pack abs. Spend an hour a day knitting and get scarves. Spend an hour a day reading novels and get - eye strain?

As book sales fall flat and a national study suggests fewer people than ever read literature, the benefits of pleasure reading are far from obvious to overscheduled Americans with MTV attention spans.

Teachers and public-service announcements pound the reading-is-good-for-you message into children from an early age. But by the time many people reach adulthood, they've lost sight of what marketing gurus might call the "takeaway value" of books.

The value of reading can be hard to articulate even to enthusiasts. Then there are those who don't read, don't care that they don't read and don't worry that they're missing out.

"It makes sense to recognize that for some people, reading isn't the game, and they'll achieve self-awareness through other means," says author and literature professor Mark Edmundson. "But most people stand to grow quite a lot through reading. Words have a magic. If you change the way people talk to themselves and to the world at large, you change the way that a person lives. Words have amazing power."

In his new book, "Why Read?" (Bloomsbury, $21.95), Edmundson argues that books are more than just vitamins for the brain. They literally can change the direction of a person's life.

"A liberal education uses books to rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish, revise, overwhelm, replace, in some cases (alas) even help begin to generate the web of words that we're defined by," he writes. "But this narrative isn't a thing of mere words. The narrative brings with it commitments and hopes. . . . A new language, whether we learn it from a historian, a poet, a painter, or composer of music, is potentially a new way to live."

During a telephone interview, Edmundson mentioned examples from his own reading life. A high school discussion of Ken Kesey's book, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," gave him insight into parallels between institutions often thought of as "bad," such as the novel's mental hospital, and those considered "good," such as his own high school. He suddenly understood that even good institutions have problems, and that protesting them was a justifiable way to fight the bad - while, say, breaking windows wasn't.

At about the same time, he read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Edmundson, who is white, lived in a Boston-area town with a "small but significant race war problem," he said.

Edmundson said he had no clue what life was like for black Americans; they were just the people he and his friends fought with. The book showed him life on the other side of the color line. "I stopped getting into fistfights," he said. "It didn't turn me into an angel or anything, but it was a step in the right direction."

"Why Read?" is less a guide for generalists than a focused appeal to students and teachers at the college level to use literature as a springboard into discussions about what matters deeply in life: questions of love, honor, heroism, work and spirituality.

College, he said, is "the time when you're making decisions of who you're going to be and what you're going to do. If you're converted by a book as a sophomore, it's a little bit easier than if you're married with two kids and a mortgage. But it can happen at any time."

Or, if you're Joseph Psarto, it can happen all the time.

The septuagenarian from Westlake said that while reading "has nothing to do with whether I'm a republican or a democrat or a communist or a socialist," books absolutely have played a role in the person he has become.

His first "aha" reading experience happened at age 10. He used to read Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan" books while sitting beneath a tree on land owned by a wealthy family who lived near where he and his mother lived in a cold-water flat.

"One day I was reading, and I said to myself, 'This isn't about the jungle. This is about an English gentleman and what it means to be an English lord. Everything he does is honorable,' " Psarto said. That trick that fiction has of seeming to be about one thing while illuminating another made a lifelong reader out of Psarto.

"I realized that's what a novel does," he says.

Deborah McHamm, president of A Cultural Exchange, the multicultural reading program and bookstore for children, says that despite the fact that reading "is not a prime-time activity in our culture," the people she serves don't need to be told that books improve their lives. They instinctively know it.

They quickly come to appreciate opening a new book "the way you anticipate the taste of Haagen-Dazs," she says. "They like hearing the sound that only a book makes when you open it. It's the aesthetics of it all. And then some people want to be identified with books, they want to be seen as readers. People build libraries in their homes because of the aesthetics."

McHamm pulled two recent letters from children to illustrate their understanding of the benefits of books. One was from an 8-year-old boy who wrote to say reading helps him with his "angerment." Another, a girl, noted that after reading a biography she'd gotten at the store, she had modified her life goals; now she intended to be a composer, author or a doctor.

More Americans might be persuaded to turn to books if various literary interests worked as hard as, say, sports teams do at selling themselves, Hamm said. Selling books by linking them to other elements or activities (author visits, advertising, celebrity faces) could do more to ignite interest among reluctant readers.

"The culture around it - that's where we're failing," McHamm says. "That's what drives anything that's good. Madison Avenue understands that."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter., 216-999-4410

Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved.

Reading works brain, feeds soul, but try convincing public of that

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