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The best advice an uncle can give: Read, kids, read

  • This artwork by Donna Grethen relates to the need to keep kids reading during the summer.

As an uncle I'm inconsistent about too many things.

Birthdays, for example. My nephew Mark had one Sunday, and I didn't remember — and send a text — until 10 p.m., by which point he was asleep.

School productions, too. I saw my niece Bella in "Seussical: The Musical" but missed "The Wiz." She played Toto, a feat of trans-species transmogrification that not even Meryl, with all of her accents, has pulled off.

But about books, I'm steady. Relentless. I'm incessantly asking my nephews and nieces what they're reading and why they're not reading more. I'm reliably hurling novels at them, and also at friends' kids. I may well be responsible for 10 percent of all sales of "The Fault in Our Stars," a teenage love story to be released as a movie next month. Never have I spent money with fewer regrets, because I believe in reading — not just in its power to transport but in its power to transform.

So I was crestfallen last week, when a new report by Common Sense Media came out. It showed that 30 years ago, only 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 9 percent of 17-year-olds said that they "hardly ever" or never read for pleasure. Today, 22 percent of 13-year-olds and 27 percent of 17-year-olds say that. Fewer than 20 percent of 17-year-olds now read for pleasure "almost every day." Back in 1984, 31 percent did. What a marked and depressing change.

I know, I know: This sounds like a fogy's crotchety lament. Or, worse, like self-interest. Professional writers arguing for vigorous reading are dinosaurs begging for a last breath. We're panhandlers with a better vocabulary.

But I'm coming at this differently, as someone convinced that reading does things — to the brain, heart and spirit — that movies, television, video games and the rest of it cannot.

There's research on this, and it's cited in a recent article in the Guardian by Dan Hurley, who wrote that after "three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world," he'd concluded that "reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic."

In terms of smarts and success, is reading causative or merely correlated? Which comes first, "The Hardy Boys" or the hardy mind? That's difficult to unravel, but several studies have suggested that people who read fiction, reveling in its analysis of character and motivation, are more adept at reading people, too: at sizing up the social whirl around them. They're more empathetic. God knows we need that.

Late last year, neuroscientists at Emory University reported enhanced neural activity in people who'd been given a regular course of daily reading, which seemed to jog the brain: to raise its game, if you will.


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