how's your reading health?

As I mentioned last post, one of the sessions that I went to at Book Summit was "Reading in the Digital Age." Somehow I had the impression that it would be about writing for digital instead of paper media and how that shifted story structures. It turned out I was wrong, but that was okay, because the presentation encompassed that and a lot more.

The presenter was Raymond A. Mar, who works at York University. He also contributes to the blog On Fiction, which I immediately added to my Google Reader list as soon as the session was completed.

Mar and his colleagues have been comparing the effects of reading fiction on the brain, comparing it to the effects of what he termed expository writing. This sounds similar to what I was taught at teacher's college to call "transaction writing" — non-fiction works like essays.

It turns out that reading fiction has measurable, beneficial effects. People who read fiction are better are social tasks, and better at recognising emotions. The research also shows that watching films has the same effect, but not watching television (there are a lot of theories, but they haven't figured out why yet).

I'm not going to try and repeat the entire presentation — you had to be there, and besides, I'm not a professional in neuropsychology, so I'm bound to get some things wrong.

I am, however, a recent reader of CP Snow's Two Cultures. That book recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, which is how I got to here about it. CP Snow was either a novelist who worked in science, or a scientist who wrote fiction, depending on how you want to look at it. He noticed that he was just about the only person he knew who had an interest in both fields, and he was appalled both by his science friends' lack of respect for the power of fiction, and his artist friends' lack of knowledge of basic scientific facts. He presented the "two cultures" idea originally at a lecture he gave at Cambridge University, then expanded it to book form for publication.

The interaction of science and art is much different from how it was fifty years ago, and the version of Two Cultures that I bought and read points out that most of Snow's examples were actually from when he started his career in the 1930s. Nevertheless, I thought it was interesting (and, okay, dismaying) that the newspaper articles I read asked people working in the arts science questions like "why is the sky blue" and "what is the Second Law of Thermodynamics," but it seemed as if no-one was asking any scientists what novels they'd read recently.

I was encouraged to have what sometimes gets called a "well-rounded" education. I kept taking math and science subjects long after it became clear I didn't have the talent to pursue a career in them (except for chemistry. For some bizarre reason I always found chemistry easy.). Since then I've become the woman with the English Lit. degree who likes to read about science. I really did finish A Brief History of Time (which has a very beautifully-written ending, by the way), and wish they would just hand that book to high school students who prefer arts subjects instead of forcing them to take bewildering physics classes. They'd learn more. I did — the first three chapters more or less cover my Grade 11 physics class curriculum.

Bottom line: people need to engage in both the arts and sciences to make sense of the world and each other.