Nero, Thi, and Horatio

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September 25, 2018 by libroshombre


It’s true that lately I go to bed nightly with a corpulent, orchid-loving genius: Nero Wolfe, the best literary detective this side of Sherlock Holmes. Wolfe and his hard-boiled assistant Archie Goodwin are immensely likable characters, and since Rex Stout wrote 40 Wolfe novels, I reckoned that they’d make a fine stretch of pleasurable pre-slumber reading. However, for the past 45 years I’ve also bedded down with a slender, lovely, orchid-loving genius who brightens my waking hours, too, and when approaching sleep, I appreciate her presence as my mind travels to a comfortable mental elsewhere.

There’s a slew of reasons regular reading’s good for you. Besides forestalling the effects of Alzheimer’s by a decade or more, countless studies have shown that pleasure reading reduces stress, improves memory, focus and concentration. But it’s not a matter of perusing cereal boxes or scanning your device, because not all reading’s the same. Reading anything exercises your mind, but some fiction, particularly serious literary fiction, is better in some profound ways than even lighter printed books, such as mysteries, romances, and science fiction.

According to Pixar’s “22 rules of Storytelling,” the protagonist should be admired more for trying than for triumphs. Authors should “Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours.” Whatever your character’s main strength is, “throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them.” And “Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle.” And so on. You’ll see this approach reflected in most “genre fiction,” with “genre” defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content.”

When I read light, comfortable novels by Stout, Asimov, or a Hornblower book, I enter the relationship with certain expectations: likable characters, engaging plot, witty wordplay, and satisfying conclusions. Researchhas shown that the reading brain lights up not only the left temporal cortex, the part of our brain associated with understanding language, but also the central sulcus, the primary sensory region that helps the brain visualize movement and send signals throughout your body mimicking those you read about.

However, when deeply reading great authors like Montaigne, Nabokov, and especially Patrick O’Brian, my brain gets a full workout but also begin to feel the emotions experienced by fictional characters, for deep reading’s been shown to promote overall empathy in readers. As JoyceCarol Oates wrote, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin.” Reading good fiction seems to enhance the empathy of the reader, but scientists are debating the cause and extent.

The benefits of deep reading, “slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity,” are beyond question. The more you’re around a digitized screen, the harder it is to “get into” a significant piece of reading – be it Stout’s “Bullet For One,” “War and Peace,” or Neil Tyson’s “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” – because different mental wiring is involved. Screen reading requires quick scans and decisions, while deep reading requires concentration and understanding. These don’t overlap much, and repeated effort’s required each time before the digital side loosens its grip.

Spur that along by reading books that grabs your imagination, like Thi Bui’s “The Best We Could Do.” Librarians select books by reading reputable book review journals months before the titles are published. These journals are rigorous in their recommendations, so when reviews are “starred” as special with an asterisk, dagger or other emblem, most libraries automatically purchase those books. Bui’s memoir about her family’s boatpeople exodus from Vietnam in the mid-70s received multiple stars. It’s beautifully written and gorgeously illustrated throughout, for it’s a “graphic novel,” a term used for nonfiction as well as Uncle Scrooge and Spiderman.


Great literature transports deep readers unlike any other medium, and by that standard, great graphic novels like “The Best We Could Do” are great literature. Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” took us to 1970s Tehran, Art Spiegleman made the Holocaust’s horrors searingly relevant, andnd peaceful 1970’s Ivory Coast came to life in Marguerite Abouet’s “Aya.” They’re all transforming literature, and at your library to read, and as A.E. Housman said, “Great literature should do some good to the reader.”


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