Category Archives: Writers on Reading

Why I’m Passionate About My Library Card

Isaac Asimov - public libraries

Do you remember the first time you entered a public library?

The feeling of excitement when you received your first membership card?

The thrill of turning a corner to find thousands of books just waiting to be picked off the shelf and read?

I was nine years old when I joined the public library in my home town. It wasn’t a grand affair – no marble pillars framed the entrance nor where there any sculptures of Greek gods adorning the roof.

It was just a modest double fronted building that looked more like a house than a public building. It’s the yellow building in this photograph.

Doesn’t look much does it?

But to a young reader like myself it was paradise.

I had learned to read when I was four years old. In those early years my school could just about keep up with my appetite for more and more reading material.

But as I grow older and changed schools, my demands quickly exceeded supply. Neither my pocket money nor the family income stretched to buying new books every week.

Discovering New Worlds

The public library came to my rescue. Although it didn’t have a huge stock, it had enough copies of classics like Treasure Island, Heidi and Black Beauty to keep me going, supplemented by birthday and Christmas presents and the occasional treats. That building became my route into new worlds and new experiences entirely different from everything I had known before.

Isaac Asimov captured the power of the public library so well in a letter in 1971. It was in response to a request from a children’s librarian at a newly opened public library in Troy, Michigan who wanted to attract as many youngsters to the premises as possible.

Marguerite Hart asked a number of notable people to send a congratulatory letter to the children of Troy, explaining what they felt were the benefits of visiting such a library. Here’s Asimov’s response.

This was as true for me as a nine year as it was when I was sixteen years old and used the same public library to introduce me to translated fiction. I spent the entire summer engrossed in Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Tolstoy.

How much of their work I understood is another question entirely. The point was that I was stretching my brain, getting myself ready for more advanced literature studies. Sadly the curriculum never encompassed these guys and stayed mainly in the tradition of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bronte, and Milton. The Tolstoy did prove useful in our discussions on Russian history though.

Life Long Supporter

Fast forward more than 50 years and I’m still a proud card-carrying member of my local public library system. I wish I still had one of those original cards (maybe you had one too – they were small brown envelopes in effect) . But all I have now is a credit card style.

Even though I can afford to buy my own copies of books I still love popping into one of the local branches.

I use my public library system to sample authors I’ve never read or genres I’m uncertain about. And to read newly published titles ( as a rule I don’t buy hardcopy versions and sometimes it’s too long a wait for the paperback) .

If the non fiction selection was better I’d go looking for some poetry or biographies but unfortunately the stock is heavily weighted to celebrity memoirs.

Now of course my options are not limited to physical books. I can sit at home, scroll through the on line database of audio books and ebooks. Within minutes they get delivered to my computer. I love the convenience but nothing beats a visit to a bricks and mortar building and a browse through real shelves!

In Defence of Public Libraries

I’m a staunch advocate of the value of the free public library ethos. Always have been. Always will.

But I wonder how many years are left in which I – and the eight million other active library members in the UK – can continue to enjoy the benefits of this system?

In the UK, the future of the public library is under threat. Between 2010 and 2017 at least 478 libraries have closed in England, Wales and Scotland. This is the result of successive years of budget cuts by the local authorities in whose control they lie.

Although the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 says these authorities have a statutory responsibility to provide a library service, they are getting around the legislation by converting professionally-run branches into community and volunteer led libraries.

It happened in my village three years ago. Our small but much appreciated library was threatened with closure. Residents were essentially threatened – unless we took over the operation (and all the costs), the branch would close.

I was so angry I tracked down a solicitor willing to take our case to the High Court. Here we are on the day of the hearing.

We lost (on what the legal team agreed was a technicality). The village library is still open though with significantly reduced hours and struggles to raise enough funds just to keep the lights on.

The moral of the story?

If you have a public library near you, please please use it.

You don’t even have to borrow any books (or DVDs, CDs). Many larger libraries use an electronic pad at the door which automatically registers number of visitors. Footfall counts when it comes to reviews of libraries.

Use It Or Lose It

Nor does it matter if you do borrow books but never read them. The library will still include your borrowing in their performance statistics – the more items issued, the harder it is for a local authority to argue the library is not being used.

But also remember that in 28 countries around the world every time a book is borrowed, the author gets a small fee. It’s a scheme called Public Lending Rights and is designed to compensate authors for the potential loss of sales from their works being available in public libraries. You can find a list of participating countries here

Public libraries are as important today as they were when I was a child. But if we don’t use them and don’t value them, one day we may wonder why there is a derelict building where once there was a treasure house.


Are you a supporter of public libraries? What do they mean to you? I’d love to hear your story so please leave a comment below

Reasons to Justify Your Passion for Reading

The Benefits of Reading

For large numbers of people, reading is a form of entertainment. A chance to escape from their normal lives and be transported to a different time or place. For a short time, they also get an opportunity to inhabit other lives that could be more exciting than their own.

Other people read to improve their knowledge. Obviously students and school pupils fall into this camp. But they are not the only readers who delve into a book so they can feel better informed about a particular subject. Biographies, memoirs, travelogues all bring opportunities for discovery.

Do the benefits of reading go beyond entertainment and knowledge?

The answer from American novelist and activist, James Baldwin is an unequivocal yes.

It was reading that helped him leap over the barriers he experienced when growing up as a black child in a white neighbourhood. And then during his early adult years when he frequently encountered discrimination, being turned away from restaurants, bars and other establishments because he was African American.

In an interview for LIFE Magazine in 1963, he described how, as a child, he read everything he could get his hands on from the public library

… murder mysteries, The Good Earth, everything. By the time I was thirteen I had read myself out of Harlem. What I had to do then was bring the two things together: the possibilities the books suggested and the impossibilities of the life around me.

Reading, said Baldwin, taught him that the things that tormented him the most were the same things experienced by people in the novels.

You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. 

What Happens When We Read?

Recent decades have seen a wealth of scientific studies designed to address that very question.

Some studies looked at the benefits of reading on stress levels others on mental ability and emotional capacity. What these scientists discovered make a compelling argument about the transformational nature of books.

Reading Enlarges Your Brain

Let’s take the example of a study by two scientists at Pittsburgy-Carnegie Mellon University.

Instead of looking at the effects of reading on the body’s physiological, psychological and emotional mechanisms, they turned their attention to the brain.

Would reading have any effects on the neurological system, they wondered.

Their study of children aged eight to ten discovered that a programme to help children improve their reading skills caused a re-wiring of their brains.

The quality of white matter in the children’s brains — the tissue that carries signals between areas of grey matter where information is processed — improved substantially during the programme..

Although the study was relatively small (just 72 subjects), the researchers believed it could be a break-through in treating developmental disorders, including autism.

Reading Makes You Smarter

If our brains can change as a result of reading, what does that mean for intelligence levels?

It turns out that reading and intelligence have a symbiotic relationship.

“Crystallised intelligence” – the mishmash of knowledge that fills our brains – is improved with reading. As is “fluid intelligence” which is the ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful patterns.

Some academics have used these connections to explain a 20 point increase credited in IQ scores among students. It’s the result, they claim of an increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in UK schools.

The lesson? If you want to have a chance of winning Mastermind or to excel in a survival exercise, you’d better get those books out now.

Reading Creates Empathy

But wait a moment. Being able to regurgitate facts and figures or to see connections between random thoughts might seem impressive.

But we’re missing a vital factor. One that makes an even more compelling reason for us to read and read and read.

For there’s third type of intelligence that is even more profoundly impacted by reading it appears. It’s called “emotional intelligence”.

We’re talking here about the ability to accurately read and understand our own and others’ feelings. And how to respond appropriately.

How do we know this?

In a 2013 Harvard study, a group of 1000 volunteers were put through an experiment designed to test other people’s mental states – what scientists call Theory of Mind.

One group was assigned literary fiction such as Corrie by Alice Munro and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. Another read popular fiction such as Space Jockey by Robert Heinlein. A third group got nonfiction such as “How the Potato Changed the World” by Charles Mann. A control group had nothing to read.

Across five experiments, people in the literary fiction group performed better on tasks like predicting how characters would act. They had a stronger ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions – a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.

One of the study leaders said the results showed that social empathy was enhanced by reading literary fiction.

If we engage with characters who are nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand, then I think we’re more likely to approach people in the real world with an interest and humility necessary for dealing with complex individuals,”

David Kidd, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education

Reading other kinds of fiction – like graphic novels, light romances, chick lit – didn’t have anywhere near the same kind of benefit, the study leaders maintain.

Why the difference? Literary fiction (or what they called ‘writerly fiction’ contains more gaps in detail. The reader therefore has to work harder to find their way through the blanks, drawing more upon their ability to connect and to imagine. So instead of being told what a character is thinking, readers of literary fiction have to interpret it for themselves based on how they are shown of the character’s actions.

Reading Improves Mental Well-Being

The ability to understand other people’s emotions is now being viewed as a key element in the power of reading to affect mental well-being.

In part this is due to the benefit of reading on stress levels, as discovered in a 2009 study at the University of Sussex,

The researchers took a bunch of volunteers and put them through a series of activities designed to increase their heart rate and stress levels. Then they were tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation.

The activity that turned out to have the biggest effect, was reading.

Reading a novel for just six minutes lowered the volunteers’ stress levels by 68 percent. Other anti-stress strategies did work, just not to the same extent.

Going for a walk for example led to a 42 percent reduction; drinking a cup of tea or coffee saw a 54 percent improvement. Listening to music fared better, resulting in a 61 percent reduction in stress.

The authors reasoned that it’s the ability to be fully immersed and distracted that makes reading the perfect way to relieve stress.

This finding has had profound implications for the treatment of mental disorders. Doctors are now increasingly prescribing books to patients with depression or emotional disturbance. 

‘Bibliotherapy’ as it’s been termed, isn’t new – it was apparently coined in 1916 by a clergyman named Samuel Crothers. But the National Health Service in the UK is taking a much closer interest into the benefits of literary prescriptions.

Since 2013 they’ve been working with The Reading Agency on a programme called Reading Well which offers a books-on-prescription scheme and a recommended list of mood-enhancing fiction that can be sourced from public libraries. The results so far are impressive.

These are the theories. Is this what happens in real life?

I’ve certainly had times when I’ve turned to books to help take my mind off a stressful situation. But I’ve been struggling to think of situations in which I’ve found empathy by reading a book. Or made a connection between my own situation and what I find in a work of fiction. Maybe the connection has happened but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Or maybe the time has not yet come.

What do you think about all these studies? Do you know of people who who have found comfort in books? Do share your insights if you feel comfortable about doing so.

Writers On Reading: Stephen King

Stephen King

Imagine you’re in a train station or a doctor’s waiting room.

If you prefer, imagine you’re standing in a queue to get your passport renewed, pay your parking fine or buy theatre tickets.

Are you:

  • frantically texting on your phone;
  • glancing at your watch every few seconds;
  • staring into space;
  • glaring at the back of the person in front of you, somehow thinking this will make the queue move quicker or
  • reading a book/magazine/newspaper?

If you picked the last of these options, you are in a minority I suspect.

Take a look around you the next time you’re in one of what Stephen King would call “dead spots in life”. How many of the people around you are reading? Very few I suspect.

For reasons I won’t bore you with right now, I’ve spent many hours in hospital waiting rooms in the past few years. They always run late so I make sure I have a book or an e-reader with me.

I’m often the only one. I’ll see the occasional person with a magazine or a newspaper. But the majority are just sitting, either looking at the blank wall in front of them or reading dog-eared notices about the myriad of problems the body can throw at you.

How can they do this? I find the prospect of being stuck in a place for even 15 minutes without anything to read as highly stressful. No-one wants to be in these places but if you can lose yourself in a book for a while, it makes the wait slightly more manageable. But there these people sit, sometimes for more than an hour, with absolutely nothing to occupy their minds.

I’ve not reached the level of Andy Miller who, during his Year of Reading Dangerously, would find an excuse to go to the post office just so that he could read.

But I do tend to have a book with me almost every time I step out of the house. They help keep me sane.

How about you? Do you always carry a book with you or are you happy sitting in a Zen like state while waiting?

%d bloggers like this: