“Without books, I am starting to feel mentally flabby,” I complained to Dr. Maryanne Wolf, the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” after I phoned her to ask for help.
“There’s a good reason for that,” she said.
Deep reading — the kind that you engage in when you get lost in the syntax and imagery and the long, convoluted sentences of a really meaty book — is a special sort of exercise that creates a new part of the brain that did not exist at birth.
“It’s semi-miraculous, really,” said Dr. Wolf, the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. “We don’t have genes for reading. It’s an activity we invented, and by doing it, we show that our brain has the capacity to go beyond itself, to take all these circuits that were created for oral language or vision, and do something entirely different with them — deduction, critical analysis, imagination, contemplation.”
Not so long ago, Dr. Wolf suffered like me. “I am constantly using Google or whatever search engine, and one day I realized I had given up my old habits of reading poetry,” she said. “I thought: ‘Poetry takes too much time. Can I spend that much time on a sentence anymore?’ ”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I forced myself to re-read one of my favorite books, ‘The Glass Bead Game’ by Hermann Hesse, and I had no clue that at first it was going to be such a torturous experience,” she said. “The first two nights, I couldn’t read more than a couple of pages. Third night, same. Fourth night. Then, around Page 35, finally, it was like coming home.”
Akin to deep breathing, isn't it? Similar exercise, similar result: yoga for the mind.