Bibliotherapy just one of the many benefits of reading

By Janet Stevens / The Bulletin

A new (to me) magazine showed up in our house recently, Ode for Intelligent Optimists. I suspect it came from my eldest, Anna, and I suspect she was drawn by an article on reducing food waste.

What interested me was the theme of the October 2010 issue: reading. “Read all about it,” the magazine cover says. “Why the written word is good for body, mind and soul.” There’s no way a person who has spent her life reading and writing could ignore that.

That lead article is about something called bibliotherapy, in which mental health professionals help patients by having them read. Bibliotherapy also is making its way into the classroom, where, scientists say, it can help with normal development among normal kids.

No duh!

I suspect all reading addicts can think back to childhood and the impact books had on their lives. Books — as the magazine article says and personal experience confirms — take us out of ourselves and introduce us to people, places and experiences we might otherwise never be exposed to.

Better, it’s good for us. Reading, the scientists say, far more than movies or videos, makes us use our minds, stretch our imaginations and create for ourselves the world in which a book’s characters live. In fact, research about reading’s impact on the brain shows that when we read about something our brains react as if we were actually participating. Our minds engage actively when we read in ways they do not when we simply watch the action pass by in front of us on a screen.

Author Betty Smith knew that — at least intuitively — when she put young Francie Nolan on a fire escape, shaded by a tree and reading a book early in the classic, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” So, too, does a teenager in the magazine article who suffers a painful bone disorder. Reading, she says, is the only pain relief she can find.

Unfortunately, we’re reading less today and we’re falling down on the task of teaching our children that reading can be fun.

My kids were lucky. When they were in school a decade or more ago, they routinely were part of something called Sustained Silent Reading, an exercise in which students read to themselves for a set amount of time. They chose their own books for the exercise, which ultimately aimed to give kids the habit of reading for pleasure. It certainly worked at our house.

We still read together in our house, actually. Mary and I read aloud more afternoons than not, and Anna and Megan read to each other in the same way. They read in the car — or at least one does; the other, presumably, is keeping her eyes on the road — something I’ve never been able to do. It’s a shared pleasure that we’ve enjoyed for years, at home, on planes and on vacation.

I worry that too many kids are missing the pleasure and benefits of reading these days. With so much visual media available, there are all sorts of reasons to forgo the far less flashy pleasure of reading. Yet there’s almost nothing nicer than to cuddle up on the couch with Mom or Dad and spend time with Dr. Seuss, and it’s a practice that’s good for everyone involved.

This is Banned Books Week, sponsored by the American Library Association. The week celebrates our freedom to read what we want. We can celebrate it, too, by reading to our children and by reading to ourselves. It’s an inexpensive pastime that offers lifelong rewards.

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