Recently a flurry of articles came out that purport to describe how reading fiction improves the brain.
Brain Function “Boosted For Days After Reading a Novel” from slashdot
Your brain on fiction from the New York Times
It would be great if it was possible to measure “brain function” in a simple way and to be able to show that reading a novel causes an improvement in “brain function”. Unfortunately reality is not this simple. When one is reading a novel time passes. Over time, a multitude of intervening variables might influence the dependent variable/s in question.
These studies are a perfect example of the limits of science. Certain phenomena are too complex to fit neatly into a hypothesis or controlled experiment. It is obvious to anyone who spends time reading good fiction that it is relaxing and beneficial in many ways. For one thing, reading requires a person to carve a substantial amount of time out of each day and this alone might account for some of the benefits from reading.
In any event, why does there have to be a scientific explanation for something so pleasurable and so human? Why do we need to pick it apart and dissect it? However, if studies like this do encourage more people to read deeply then that is fine.
The magic of literature and the other arts is that they are mysterious. There are some things in this universe that scientists will never poke, prod or measure. Muses are one of these.
I just finished a book of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. This Japanese author committed suicide in 1927 after writing hundreds of poems and stories. Some of his stories are so haunting that the images will be seared into your brain forever. Rashomon is one of these. It is almost as if the author is an omnipotent being hovering over the scenes providing a running commentary on medieval Japanese life. After reading this slim volume, I do have one imperative. I must try some yam gruel.
Just finished reading “First Love” by Ivan Turgenev, a short book that was published in 1860. Every young person should read this story. It could serve as a training manual for the inevitable crises of passion that every young man and woman will go through at one time or another.
The most amazing thing about this book is the way it grabs the reader and pulls one into the mind of the main character, a sixteen year old boy who is hopelessly in love with a beautiful young princess, who just happens to be several years older. Even though the result is predictable, the author creates a tension that is almost excruciating.
J.D. Salinger was right. There are many nice people and places. In fact, they are the reason we make an effort. We do it for the good guys and the kind ladies, especially for the “fat lady”. We do not do it for ourselves, to bolster our ego, for money, or for selfish gain.
I love a train ride. It’s a great chance to curl up with a book and lose myself. Yesterday my treat was “Franny and Zooey” and at times I almost could not stop myself from laughing out loud. Salinger throws out classic lines like a prize fighter, punch after punch. Here’s one: Franny, a cute college co-ed, is having lunch with her young gentleman, Lane. Lane is a real loser, snobbish and self-centered. Franny stares at his plate. He is eating snails and frog legs. Suddenly she blurts out “Eat them snails”. Lane, completely oblivious to everything except his own greatness, continues pontificating about his own selfish concerns.
Skip ahead to the second section and you will be treated to an extended scene in a bathroom where Zooey’s (Franny’s older brother) Mother is an uninvited visitor. He entreats, threatens, and begs his mother to get out to no avail. Using biting, hilarious sarcasm, he debates his mother while chain smoking and soaking in tepid bathwater.