I’ve just managed to hear the last part of Open Book on Radio 4. It seems I’ll have to wait a while for it to be available on iPlayer. Mariella Frostrup was talking to Edmund White and it was interesting to hear him say that part of him would have liked to have settled down and to have had children. Coming from a gay writer it’s nice to know I’m not alone in that sentiment.
Listening to the programme made me realise how little I’ve read lately and some of what the act of reading means to me. I’ve loved reading since I can remember. My mother always encouraged it and I could read very well by the time I started school. I would often take home the book that was being read in class and finish it at home that day, eager for the next book and impatient that I would have to go over it again and again. In hindsight, this allowed me to learn more and more about the language I use, and the subtleties of language used in any written work.
My English teacher in senior school encouraged me to look at what I was reading even more. Through him I learnt that Shakespeare and Chaucer weren’t just old writers who didn’t make any sense, they were accomplished authors who managed to convey a great deal in the language they used.
Reading is another way of looking at the world. The use of words that sometimes have little to do with the subject matter can vividly describe the subject matter itself. Poetry is a classic example of this. Reading and writing helps expand the mind, opening it out like a flower to encompass experiences and situations that I have no knowledge of and allowing me to grasp what they might feel like and look like.
Writing is the same. I must think about how I am going to describe a thing or a situation in a way that others will begin to grasp my meaning. This necessitates analysing something to find the deeper meaning in order to be able to describe it. This exercises the mind. As with physical exercise our brains need exercising too. This is what keeps us fit, healthy and strong.
So, reading and writing help us to learn about ourselves and the world around us. They promote conversation, bring people together, and stimulate our minds. They are the stuff that anarchy, religion, philosophy and science are born of – and give birth to.
Reading must also have a physical effect. I can laugh and cry at a story or written account and I can feel enormously happy or incredibly sad or angry. While I am reading something these emotions are very real in the experiencing, even though the situation is artificial. It is well known that emotions have a physical effect on the body and mind because of the production of hormones and chemicals.
I saw a programme on TV a while back that explored what reading can do to somebody’s brain. For a process that is not naturally learned, like speech and walking, it has an enormous effect. It exercises and increases memory, brings about empathy through glimpses into other people’s lives – however real or fictional, and it encourages a continuation of learning through trying to grasp the meaning of what is written.
Apart from reporting on the experiments carried out on the brain, the programme talked to people who were formally illiterate, or who may have not read much in their lives. Once they had found the right encouragement they began to read more avidly. All the things I have mentioned above were increased after time. One chap, a formal criminal, had even said that the more reading he did the more it made him think about the effect his former actions had on the people he carried out crimes against - something that had never entered his mind before. A clear example of empathy.