Stop What You’re Doing and Read This - Book Review

What follows are ten essays written by writers, publishers, scientists and other reading advocates who tell their version of how reading can transform a reader’s brain, mind, and soul. I loved the idea of this book when the publisher offered me a copy because I cannot convince people to read. I wish I could, but I have no idea how to do it. I can simply speak my own experience. “Why  should you read?” I might say to a non-reader. “Well, because I  have read, and it’s gotten into me somehow. I feel connected to the booming life of history. I feel embedded in words that generations will read long after I’m gone, and generations have read long before I existed. I’m in the conversation now, and I want to remain plugged into it. I’m empathetic now. I’m calmer. I’m no longer a solitary mind steeping in self-doubt and fear and the longing for joy; I am one of a whole soul of people who feels just like me. That is why you should read. To be part of that.” This is what I say over and over when people ask me why they should read, and it never elicits transformation. It actually puzzles people who see literature as a waste of time and readers as self-gratifying “bookworms”.

And it seems so insubstantial. All of the essays in Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!, while told in different styles and from different points of view, ultimately support the final essay, which is highly technical and discusses how the brain works when one is reading, and what can happen to the brain if one does not exercise it by reading deeply enough, not to simply take in knowledge and spit it back out, but to analyze it, form a conclusion, and support that conclusion as an individual and newborn thought inspired by reading but created in the mind of the reader. This final essay warns readers that to fail to think deeply actually weakens the brain, and that technology which offers readers short-cuts in deep thinking will have grave effects on the minds of those new souls entering our 21st century who will form tomorrow’s leaders. The final essay seems to plea with all those who have read the prior essays and can say, “Yes, yes. I love literature too. I can see the point of reading.”
“You love literature? Then we need you. We need to figure out where to go in the 21st century: how to save literature, keep it vital, and retrain the human brain to receive it, not docilely, but richly. We need you to fight with us. Teach your children. Train your brains. Do not fade into technology. Do not become lazy readers. Literature is too rich to die this death, and it will not die if we refuse to become passive. If literature affects life as deeply as we have laid out in this book, then the changing dynamics of literature will deeply alter life. We must be prepared for this and face it intellectually.” (The above quote is me analyzing and paraphrasing.) Many of the essays in the collection offer personal anecdotes about the life of a reader which demonstrate the enriching power of literature. I enjoyed these but felt far more energized by the essays that discuss the effect of the tools of writing on the brain.

My favorite essay in the collection was by far “The Right Words in the Right Order” by Mark Haddon. He dissects how words and their placement creates effects within the mind of the reader. For example, “Sad.” What a small word for the depth that is true sadness. Writers, poets take that intense longing, and that tiny little word, and combine it with other words that create rhythms that pierce the very soul, and readers feel  what the word cannot truly demonstrate. We live it because it is universal. As a new-budding writer, I found this essay particularly fascinating. Haddon addresses how writers create an illusion of life with just the alphabet,  and why it works. He also compares literature to its more popular cousin these days, film: “Stop reading right now. Look around you. It doesn’t matter if you’re lying in bed or sitting in a crowded tube carriage. This is what film can’t do. The sense of being inside  looking out,  of seeing a world that belongs to everyone but is nevertheless yours alone.” Mark Haddon - “The Right Words in the Right Order” (Essay #5).