Turning the Page

Gee, I might just live forever.

No, I haven’t been listening to the theme from “Fame” again. (“I’m going to learn how to fly – high!”) But I have been getting some encouragement from Smithsonian lately. According to an article there by Erin Blakemore, reading books lengthens your life – and the more you read, the better it gets.

This is an exceptionally good thing for us for two reasons. Number one, our home is practically overflowing with evidence of immortality … which is a nice way of saying that there are books shelved, stacked and scattered in every single room, including the garage. And number two, both Heather and I possess a mighty tsundoku —  a useful Japanese word referring to the “reading pile” that has yet to be whittled down. At the rate we accumulate volumes, we might just need the extra lifespan to imbibe them all.

The details? The article cites a study from Social Science and Medicine that looked at 3,635 adults who were 50 or older. After controlling for other factors, those who read books lived almost two years longer on average than those who didn’t. Those who read more than 3.5 hours a week saw the best effects. And books produced better results than either newspapers (apologies to my former co-workers) or magazines.

It’s not solid proof. But it’s a good suggestion that, like so many other aspects of life, what we emphasize becomes powerful. Push your body and you strengthen your body, as we’ve seen in so many Olympic athletes this week. So why shouldn’t pushing your brain make it stronger, too?

Of course, there’s a corollary to all that, too. If a person builds what they focus on, then we need to be careful what we focus on.

We haven’t done such a great job of that lately.

We live in a social environment that has become increasingly toxic. One where people listen less and argue more – if “argue” is even the right word, as opposed to “overlapping shouting.” One that encourages people to look at differences instead of commonalities, to close out instead of bring in, to form up factions rather than attempt the hard work of compromise.

In a world that reasons by volume, the biggest bullies and shouters look like leaders. Not because they’re right, but because they refuse to let anyone else occupy the stage. And the more that people buy into it, focus on it, imitate it, the stronger they become.

And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Change the focus and you can change the reality.

Kindness and empathy haven’t died. Hope and consideration aren’t extinct. Courage hasn’t gone the way of the VCR and the floppy disc. They may not get the 6 o’clock news, but they’re still there. And if those “muscles” get exercised — if we refuse to be bound by fear, if we push back against hate, if we actively reach out to each other at every opportunity – then they, too, become strong.

Curiously enough, reading can be powerful there, too. After all, books are captured memory. They remind us that this is not the first time hate and fear have run rampant. And they remind us that those forces have been overcome before, and can be again. That the fight may be never-ending, but it’s far from hopeless.

And if we’ve been willing to touch a multitude of minds on the page, live a hundred lives that were never ours – then just maybe, it might train us to be aware of the minds and lives of others in the “real world,” too.

It’s all in where you put your time and attention.

The choice may well speak volumes.

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