[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, October 2013]

    I consider myself fortunate that I developed a love of recreational reading at a young age.  From comic books to the Hardy Boys, Danny Dunn and even a few of the classics, my life has been steeped in a literate tradition, worlds of imagination between the pages of those low-tech storytellers, books.  Reading has a long history of research behind it, showing that it can boost IQ, lengthen attention span, increase vocabulary and make us better communicators.  Can’t you tell just by talking to someone whether or not they’re a reader?

    Even before I knew about all of these cognitive benefits, though, I always harbored sympathy for those people who never found the love for literacy.  It seems like thousands of ideas, stories and heroic themes are just passing them by.  I’ve had conversations with them before, and they usually have reasons for why they prefer to do anything else besides lose themselves in a book.  Some say that they have to “read all day” in their jobs, and the last activity that draws them in their spare time is more of the same.  But, that can’t be the whole story, because voracious readers also often have to read on the job; yet they still find reading a rewarding use of their time afterward.  In the words of a past college peer of mine, “a reader is a reader is a reader.”  We’re going to read for pleasure, no matter the other word requirements in our lives.

    What’s even harder for me to grasp than the idea of not loving to read, is that non-readers actually pity me!  Yes, I’ve had a few very intelligent non-readers observe that life has too much for them to do to be bothered “staring at words on a page all the time.”  They seem to have confused the technology requirements of reading–using the senses to take in words–with what reading is really all about. 

      I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to dealing with people, enough to know that adult readers almost never win converts from among adult non-readers.  You either develop the love for it at a young age, or you probably never will.  Still, as a professional who focuses on the inner world, I feel the need to try to illustrate what reading entails, absent the idea that it’s just staring at words for people who would rather be doing something else.

    At its heart, reading is about building a relationship.  Although usually considered a solitary activity, reading requires the reader to connect to another person; after all, stories and ideas don’t descend out of the sky.  They are assembled and written down by other people.  More, reading is a negotiation.  The writer uses language to explain something, and the reader chooses how to act on that explanation.  Words on a page aren’t just words; they are a recipe, a set of directions from the writer, suggestions to the reader for how to use their own imagination.  Like a muscle doing different exercises, the imagination gets better and more efficient the more one uses a variety of writers and styles to operate their mental machinery.  You see, what non-readers don’t grasp is that reading isn’t a passive process at all.  A reader is expending large amounts of energy and effort to create something inside themselves.  Ask any doctor which organ in the body consumes the most energy, and they’ll tell you it’s the brain.  A reader sitting quietly with an intense look of concentration on their face might be the hardest-working person you observe in a day!

    I won’t try to convert the non-readers out there.  But I love the mental worlds I’ve built in my lifetime, and hope you have opportunity to experience the same!  Such rewards are as close as your local library.