Recent studies from Liverpool University led by Professor Philip Davies have demonstrated that reading the classics improves our own reflectiveness and self-knowledge. Extracts from works such as ‘Othello,’King Lear,’ ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Corialinus’ were read by participants and scientists measured brain changes during these exercises using Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Extracts from the work of Larkin, Wordsworth and TS Eliot were also read by the readers for the experiment. After reading the classical work, the participants then read the work in a simplified form, without any of the metaphor and colour of the original. Not surprisingly, the results showed much greater electrical activity in the brain when the complex phrases and eloquent sentences were being read, as opposed to the dumbed down versions of the classical construct.
Indeed, the right side of the brain which is concerned with personal memory and emotion was highly stimulated when reading poetry, which prompted the scientists to extrapolate that self-reflection and a reappraisal of previous experiences is produced by the bardic works. This research is in its infancy but coupled with the rolling out this May of a scheme in the U.K. dubbed “Books on Prescription,” there is a very large swing in favour of the healing powers of books and literature. The scheme according to Miranda McKearney, director of the Reading Agency will allow GPs to write out prescriptions for books available at their local libraries to sufferers of mild to moderate anxiety and depression.The list includes many self-help books as well as mood-boosting novels and poetry from writers such as Jo Brand, Bill Bryson and Terry Jones. This is extremely good news for those of us who have always known the restorative powers of an early night and immersion in a good book.
I have always been a book lover and it is a relationship that has withstood the vagaries of time and has remained unsullied by my odd flirtations with music and travel. A life without books for me would have been an arid desert of gulag groundhog day, dull and dreary and essentially unintelligible. I read for the sheer pleasure of escape into another World, into other states of consciousness, other apercus and filters of experience. The only World any of us know is the one our own brain shows us, and as human beings we can often feel alone in our thoughts and views, unable to access the inner thoughts and feelings of others. Even as a young reader I always loved that eureka moment when the character in the novel had a train of thought similar to my own, that communing with the author, that finding a bit of myself in the pages of a book.
I progressed from an obsession with bible stories at four through Enid Blyton, hanging out for a while with Anne of Green Gables.I think that reading The Catcher in the Rhy at thirteen opened my eyes to teenage angst as suffered by Holden which was mirroring by own bubbling rebelliousness. Life and art are good bedfellows and in novels and poetry the dilemmas and beauty of the human condition are there in the pages , waiting to be discovered by the reader. The School of Life, which was set up my philosopher and writer Alain De Botton in Bloomsbury, London is a unique cultural enterprise whose goal is to try to help us all live lives with more meaning and to negotiate the often tricky minefields of work and relationships. Uniquely they also offer a biblotherapy service, where very accomplished authors and thinkers will prescribe a course of reading which will help with negotiating the times when life can be more challenging whether because of career angst or coping with bereavement.These gurus are like personal trainers for the soul and aim to change your thinking and ignite and revitalise your life using carefully selected books as tools. You can click here to learn more about Bibliotherapy.
Over the next few blog posts I am going to trawl through my shelves and find those books whose pearls of wisdom have sustained me over my life.