October 14, 2017 by libroshombre
Long ago I took up the banner of bibliophile Winston Churchill: “If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.”
Some of us derive immense satisfaction from befriending a wide circle of books, and if sampling doesn’t compel reading the whole thing, we move along to more promising prospects. This requires a steady stream of prospective tomes, so after writing recently about my reading chair books, some who know measked, “that was all?” I admit merely scratching the surface for there’s comfort in being near bevies of books. Some I’ll even finish, like Paul Hutton’s “The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History.”
“Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom,” by Jack Weatherford, is proving equally engrossing. describing how an 18th century French biography of Genghis became one of Jefferson’s favorite books, and relating how the Khan governed dozens of nations brimming with competing religious zealotry by forcing everyone to respect everyone else’s religions.
Some books are meant for dabbling and sampling Churchill-like. Examples abound: Erik Vance’s “Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal,” and “Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life” by Helen Czerski. Other books merit only tasting, but are enlightening nonetheless. “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination” by Paul Guerrieri, and William Walker’s “Betrayal at Little Gibraltar: A German Fortress, a Treacherous American General, and the Battle to End World War I” are falling into this category.
This scattershot approach to reading drives some folks bonkers, while feeling obliged to finish an unenjoyable book sends me round the bend. But as Jane Austen noted, “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” NPR.org ran an interesting article titled “A Lively Mind: Your Brain on Jane Austen” that described a Michigan State University study in the new field of literary neuroscience that used MRIs to study the differences in the brains of people who immersed themselves in reading Jane Austen – “as a scholar might read a text” – and others who merely browsed it “as they might do at a bookstore.”
They found that deep reading activated many areas of the reader’s brains, especially “parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.” Another study from The New School in New York has “found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling. “When study participants read non-fiction or nothing, their results were unimpressive. When they read excerpts of genre fiction, such as Danielle Steel … their results were dually insignificant. However, when they read literary fiction … their test results improved markedly, and, by implication, so did their capacity for empathy.”
So fiction’s by my chair, too. Lately I’ve been enthralled lately with Philip Kerr’s excellent “Berlin noir” mysteries, about a police inspector in Nazi Germany, David Petersen’s gorgeously-illustrated “Wind in the Willows,” and I’m constantly re-reading Patrick O’Brian, an author of historical fiction that rises far above most “serious” novels in more ways than dowsers can shake sticks.
There are literally dozens more, and all mentioned here are at your public library. As Arthur Conan Doyle observed, “A man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber room of his library, where he can get it if he wants.”