No, you did not start reading at four

You may have started reading at a young age, but when did you realise that reading could change your brain?

book-stackWhen did you start reading? Three, four years of age? You may have started to read back then, but I say it was many many years before you were an accomplished and passionate reader, with an understanding of the purpose and benefits of reading.

What I’m talking about is the realisation that reading changes you. When did you realise that you could pick up a book and three – thirty hours later you could be better informed or even skilled in some area of life?

There’s a difference between reading the Hungry Caterpillar over and over and enjoying Fantastic Mr. Fox. There’s a step-change in the empathy and learning involved when reading through such challenging children’s stories like Fantastic Mr. Fox. There’s another step-up when one reads The Chronicles of Narnia, or The Hobbit. These books for mature, smart children are the pinnacle of one’s journey to learn to read and appreciate the worlds within the covers. But tell me, how many children pop into Waterstones and purchase a text book?!

As we get older, we undergo so many changes, our tastes develop and mature, but we also come to realise the benefit of learning. Rather than being spoon-fed at school, or coming to learn things through our play activities, we can reach out and choose to fill our head with all sorts of information.

For me, it was Readers’ Digest encyclopaedias and compendiums. I poured over heavy thick books by candle light and by torch light under my bed covers, learning about ritual practices of Native Americans and the Incas, Antarctic research, strange animals of the rain forests and historical mysteries of London. The book I’m thinking of is musty and brown now, and while no doubt out of date, its pages still fill me with wonder. This is when I started reading. I read, not as a past time, but as a student.

As I got a little older, I was allowed to read ‘adult books‘ and I came across sex, death, drugs and alternative lifestyles for the first time. I felt very mature to be reading books that talked unabashedly about ladies’ parts! And although I didn’t use swear words myself back then, I appreciated the responsibility of reading them without being shocked! Knowing more about the world and other people’s lives (as opposed to the sedentary lives within my sleepy small town) made me feel the world was indeed bigger than I knew. It gave me hope that I might become something greater than my family and my school teachers could imagine.

Later, as a proper teenager, the local library became a focus for my fascination. Sex, death and drugs were no longer a guilty pleasure; they were standard factors in the novels of the day. I wanted more than the fictitious lives of glamourous anti-hero characters; I wanted real-life to match up to the hype!

So, I delved into psychology, philosophy, religion and occult studies. Reading about sex, death and drugs in fiction was one thing, discovering that planet Earth held a variety of view points about such things was an epiphany. My fundamental bible learning (oh yes, I had read the bible several times, thank you) was blown out of the water by the new (and ancient) ideas that other countries and cultures had to offer. Novels were no longer enough to sate my curiosity; only text books and factual essays could teach me about real people and the memes of the world.

By now, reading was shaping my character, and the World Wide Web hadn’t even been invented yet (although email and the Internet had of course). I was sad to realise that most of my friends read only one or two novels each year.

So while, like you, I started to read at a young pre-school age, I believe I only really began to read when I consciously choose my books with a mind to what they could do for me. Novels are entertaining, and offer much in the way of insight (i.e. other people think differently to oneself) but factual books and even text books are literally designed to impart new ideas and skills to the reader. Business books, text books, inspiration books and ‘how to’ books are direct routes to new knowledge.

As a young adult I read over 30 books a year; that has slipped now, but I’m currently on target to achieve it again in 2009. Novels, business books, philosophy and computer books make up my reading list.

The saying goes that anyone can become an expert in anything, if they read the right books. All one needs is an open mind, a fair vocabulary and the temerity to expect oneself to change and develop. Read the right books and change your life.


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  1. Great post, Wedge! I find it so hard to articulate to some people my passion for books. But you’ve nailed it: They don’t just entertain you. They can change you, challenge you, expand you – if you let them.

    “The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it.” ~James Bryce

  2. A great and timely post (it was World Book Day yesterday!)

    Apart from specific text books I read to teach myself things (such as music theory),I suppose I was in my early teens before I really started reading ‘other than fiction’.

    I discovered the wonders of the library when, as a young teenager, I was distraught to discover that one day I would be expected to live with a man for the rest of my life! I decided I’d have to become a nun, so I visited the library to find out how I could achieve it. That’s when I discovered the wonderful world of libraries, and my eyes were opened to whole new worlds and discoveries. I loved the library because I could learn about anything I wanted to without anyone knowing :)

    Like you, I used to read in excess of 30 books a year, although I rarely manage that these days. I used to write them all down in the back of my diaries; I’ll have to try and dig out those diaries / lists!

    Books are one of the greatest things on earth. “You’re never alone if you’re in possession of a book.”

  3. Lovely to hear from you both, thank you.

    “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend;
    inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
    Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx

  4. Ah, Dear Wedge, you have said this so beautifully that there is nothing to add except “Thank you!”

    “Books are your best friends” ~ My Dear Old Mum (and probably somebody else before her)

  5. I have been thinking about your question during lunch with the kids and realized that the answer is not clear at all. Entertainment aside, books have been a portal for me ever since early teenage, a way of escaping real-life. A separate reality, a safe house if you will. It still is, although I more often choose reality now, or it chooses me, so to speak.
    So when did I really start reading? Perhaps the day I stopped judging a book by it’s cover ;-D

    Erik (Oslo)

  6. A colleagues asked me a couple of years back, “What skill that you’ve learned has benefited you most at work.”

    I said “Reading; reading fast and voraciously”. Because I read fast, I can get a gloss on a subject quickly; I can skim read a briefing paper, and talk as if I know something about it in minutes.

    I can’t remember a year when I read 30 books in it. There’d be very few when it was less than 100 – and that’s not counting “comfort reading” when I re-read an old Pratchett or CS Forester.

    I have finally cracked, and started moving on books that I bought on trips, in airports, haven’t enjoyed on re-reading. Why? Because once you have over 3,500 books, they begin to take up so much space your partner’s sighs grow heavier.

    It’s rare for me to go into a bookshop (I live in a remoteish part of the country); it’s even rarer of me to come out of a bookshop without at least 3 books. Amazon has been a curse to me; someone mentions a book – I’m interested, and it’s one-clicked.

    I think you’re right about learning; I learn constantly through books – but recently, by reading RSS feeds of blogs [like yours :-) ], Twitter etc., I just find how much more there is to learn. At 50+, it’s a joy to keep learning.

    It isn’t just about learning skills though; it’s also about changing your mindset.

    Read anything, and you’ll increase your skills at reading.

    Once you are used to reading and do it for fun, blitzing through reports and briefings for work isn’t a trial, for it won’t overwhelm you.

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