The Magic of Reading

Have you read about Sam and Frodo's last desperate attempts to destroy Sauron's evil Ring in The Lord of the Rings?*

"Now for it!  Now for the last gasp!" said Sam as he struggled to his feet.  He bent over Frodo, rousing him gently.  Frodo groaned, but with a great effort of will he staggered up, and then he fell upon his knees again.  He raised his eyes with difficulty to the dark slopes of Mount Doom towering above him, and then pitifully he began to crawl forward on his hands.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King


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reading


Tolkien's words help us see and feel Frodo and Sam's torment.  They're in pain, so parched they can no longer swallow.  The fumes of Mount Doom make breathing difficult, and they're dizzy and stumbling.  Only their strength of will enables them to continue the journey to "the end of ends."  And we are there, toiling with them.


Yet Mount Doom is not a real place.  Sauron and the Ring are not real, and our heroes Frodo and Sam are figments of imagination.  But Tolkien's words transport us to their world, their suffering and grim determination.  We travel with them, and hope for them.  This is the power and magic of words.


The ability to read gives us access to information, it gives us a glimpse into our history, the way of life and the thoughts of people who lived before us and of people who live far away.  But reading does even more.





5 benefits of reading

1.  Reading reduces stress.

Research from the MindLab at the University of Sussex shows that reading is the most effective way to overcome stress, even better than taking a walk or listening to music.  Reading a good book slows your heartbeat and eases muscle tension, results that psychologists attribute to the mind's concentration on something other than daily worries and demands.


2.  Reading sharpens our minds.

Neuroscientists at Northwestern University have shown that reading stimulates neural networks in the brain that improve our conceptual processing of abstract content.  That's because we're imagining the characters, settings, and action – constructs built by words, but created in our mind's eye.  There's also evidence that regular readers experience less cognitive decline as they age than non-readers.


3.  Reading fiction before bed improves sleep.

When the last activity of the day disengages you from the tasks on your to-do list, you sleep longer and more deeply.  Fiction rouses the imagination and demands attention, allowing us to stop planning and projecting into the future.


reading aloud
4.  Reading provides a sense of belonging.

According to Melanie Green, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Communication at SUNY Buffalo, "Stories allow us to feel connected with others and part of something bigger than ourselves."  Reading satisfies our need for human connection because it can mimic what we feel during real social interactions.  And books provide the perfect communal experience, whether in a book club or a family read-aloud which creates shared memories and closeness.


5.  Reading helps us think, feel, and reimagine who we want to be.

In a study published by the Annual Review of Psychology, researchers showed that when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves.  So reading increases empathy, and it allows you to give up some of your own habits and thoughts as you contemplate people and circumstances different from your own.  


"When you read, you start to see the world from a new perspective," explains Dr. Keith Oatley, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto.  In short, reading changes you.





Books become part of us.


One of the reasons we may find it difficult to part with books we own, even if we have no plans to re-read them, is because the contents of those books have become part of our identity.  Books contain ideas we have absorbed, and help us become who we are.  They're valuable parts of our past and present experience, which may make us cling to them the way we hang on to old photographs and personal mementos.  


However, it's because we identify with them so closely that we can learn to part with them.  What we've gained isn't physically present in the books.  It's the activity of reading that has made the difference.


Reading is the magic that unlocks the messages that so transform us.


As J. K. Rowling stated in her 2008 Harvard commencement address, "Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced."  This is because we can communicate through writing and reading.  And Rowling's character Albus Dumbledore reminds us, "Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic."






Updated March 2023

Comments

  1. Hi Karen, I have been reading The Hobbit to my 10 and 12 year old daughters after reading your reccomendation in a blog a little while ago. Thanks for the suggestion, I had never read it before. I like how the character Bilbo Baggins is both brave and honest when facing many challenges. We were reading the part about the dwarves and Biblo running out of food right when we started having food shortages at our local supermarkets. It was very relatable and i think its the perfect Covid-19 adventure book for families. Hope you are well, Crystal from Australia

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    Replies
    1. Dear Crystal, I too love Bilbo's bravery and honesty! I'm so glad you and your daughters are enjoying "The Hobbit." I have many wonderful memories of reading to my children. I enjoy reading to my grandsons now, though they are only 4 and 1, too young to enjoy Bilbo's adventures yet. More like "Peter Rabbit" and "Steam Train, Dream Train."

      Please stay well, and enjoy this extra time with your children.

      Karen

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