Volume 13, Issue 11 ~ March 17 - 23, 2005
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Reading: The Best Exercise for Healthy Minds

Live always in the best company when you read.
—Sydney Smith:

Lady Holland’s Memoir, 1885

The other day, this writer once again fully appreciated how true those words are — though probably not as Sydney Smith intended when he penned his oft-quoted Lady Holland’s Memoir. I have long enjoyed reading; it’s so solitary and so satisfying. But on the occasion of which I speak, I was not reading alone.

Nor was I reading to myself, and the text was not new to me. Several times over the years I’ve read and enjoyed Q. Patrick’s Fat Cat, the tale of a sandy-colored fat cat that teamed up with the Marines on an island in the Pacific in World War II. This time around, I was reading aloud to the 28 members of Ms. Margaret Steinbock’s fourth grade class at Deale Elementary School.

The occasion was the school’s annual observance last week of Read Across America, and as those three words imply, the object of the program is to interest youngsters in the satisfaction, enjoyment and knowledge to be found in the written word. There was the time — as recently as when I was young — that reading’s pleasures were taken for granted. A book, magazine or newspaper held promise of a glimpse of the world beyond one’s personal meanderings.

Reading in Decline
Reading can no longer be taken for granted. In the past half century, the proliferation of television and other electronic media has produced the vivid realism in the events of current news as well as in stories and vignettes once pretty much left to printed words and the imaginations of readers young or old. We’ve all heard the old lament No one reads any more. Though that’s stretching the point, methinks it is a harbinger.

The National Endowment for the Arts tells us that from 1992 to today, the percentage of Americans who read books has declined seven percent. Judging from circulation figures I’ve noted in recent years, ’tis the same — or probably even worse — for such mainstream media and newspapers and magazines.

Truth is, people find it easier to have the full story portrayed for them on a colored screen to reading the story for themselves. Equally important, they find having directors, producers, actors, camera persons paint that picture for them is less time consuming — and in these days, who doesn’t plead guilty to being inundated by too many things?

Everyone, it seems, has too much on a plate that leaves little room for reading.

Why spend time reading newspapers when one can catch the news and also the features of the day by watching the television? The catch isn’t as detailed, as encompassing and possibly not as accurate as in hard type, but what the heck? Viewers get a vignette of daily goings on and, sadly, consider themselves reasonably well informed.

That’s with adults; for kids the picture is more troubling. From the pages of The Wall Street Journal the other day, I learned that the average youngster aged eight to 18 gets eight and a half hours of non-written media exposure every day. That includes, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, TV, DVDs, videos, music, Internet, computer, video games and more.

Small wonder there’s no time for reading where absorption comes one word at a time — but, might I add, with no commercials to interrupt the chain of thought, stimulation, appreciation and imagination.

Reading Builds Mental Muscle
For a moment, consider the differences between reading the written word and watching events being played out on the screen.

In the latter, it’s all packaged up for you. In the written word, so much is left to the imagination. Imagination is an exercise of the mind, and the younger the reader the more imagination — thus the more exercise. The mind that gets more exercise grows healthier and continues to do so regardless of age. Also, let us not forget that often the healthier the mind, the healthier the body.

Parents can play a significant role in all of this, and is it not their duty to do so? The Kaiser study revealed that for a majority of kids, there are no household rules concerning media use or, matter of fact, for what most youngsters absorb in the privacy of their own bedrooms. When there are rules, primarily they are either not enforced — or apply only to the length of time a child is allowed to be immersed in the electronic media.

In such a setting, forget for a moment about the joys and appreciation of reading and its contribution to development of a healthy mind. Think down the road. As just one example, how will children deprived of adequate reading comprehension some day be able to understand the ultra-fine print in agreements for banking and credit cards, which will play significant roles in their lives?

Young minds must be developed, and it’s a painstaking slow process in which reading — not watching — plays a key role. Yet more and more, too many overloaded parents give way to the easy way; they leave it to the electronic media to not only teach, but also to babysit. Being lost is an intellectual legacy.

Meet My Listening Readers
Hats off to those of Ms Steinbock’s class who spent a full period listening attentively to the written word and, like me, visualizing in their minds the magic of that written word. They are young, and the temptations of other media are overwhelming. Yet for a half-hour they got a glimpse of what could lie ahead if they pursue the route of reading, imagination, absorption and appreciation.

We made a deal; If they would picture in their minds the setting and the sequences as I read to them the five-page story of the fat cat that saved the lives of two Marines, I not only would listen to their stories of their pets (nearly all had dogs in the family; more than half had cats), but I would also put their names in this newspaper. (In these times, privacy considerations allow only the use of given names.)

A story is a story, whether it comes from an old man like me in concert with Q Matthew or from the mouths of 10-year-olds. So it seemed appropriate to encourage these fourth graders to write down their experiences with their family pets.

After all, if publications are to continue to be printed for people to read, there must be writers to put down the words. Take note of these names; some day one or more could appear in a story you read.

My genuine appreciation to Lindsey; Melanie; Jordan; Nick; Kerri; Tyler C.; Tyler E; Tyler K; Trenton; Taylor; Cora; Kathleen; Alison; Ashleigh; Craig; Brittney; Keegan; Danny; Hope; Casey; Victoria; Trevor; Sean; Amanda; Kyle; Bryan; and Savanna.

Read on.

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