Reading – as essential as breathing

In our age of Google and sound bites, reality TV and vanishing old-fashioned storytelling, you have to wonder if there’s still any place left for sitting down and reading a good book.

As an author of four books – I’m almost finished with my fifth – I find tremendous pleasure in writing. Sharing experiences and stories with others makes me feel more connected, more in touch. I write, because I believe the information I have accumulated over decades of living and practicing medicine should be shared with those I don’t personally know. Truth is, I really like to write as a method of communication but also as a great way to relax and gather my thoughts, put perspective on my life and just stop running.

But how does that apply to those I hope will still read books?

Does reading help heal, calm us down and give us information that may help us cure cancer or prevent heart attacks? Certainly.

Is reading a beach activity or a way to continue learning? Both.

Or have we reached a point where watching TV or surfing the Net is a better way to gather the information in our frenetic lives? Is reading heading for obsolescence? Are we just becoming illiterate as a result? I hope not.

I remember when “Cliffs Notes,” “Idiot’s Guides” and shortcuts for everything from housekeeping to classic literature, mathematics to brain surgery made their entrances into our lives. First, it was a shock. But then for many, “Cliffs Notes” certainly obviated the need to read an entire book.

At the same time, the Encyclopedia Britannica appeared to give everyone who owned the set access to everything without having to put in much reading effort. As long as you bought the entire collection of books, it came with services that provided you with summaries and reports on any topic you wanted.

That was 40 years ago. Now we have Wikipedia, Google, Ask, YouTube and, of course, all the social media to keep us informed and enable us to carry on a semi- intelligent dinner conversation.

So what happened to the real books?

Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, Balzac and Steinbeck, London and Wilde, Proust and Byron: Are their works heading for oblivion?

In the past decade, many of the small bookstores went out of business. Then big chains like Borders Books and Music closed down.

The publishers are pulling their collective hair out as the business is losing ground and literary agents are looking for a change of day jobs. The era of Kindle and electronic readers is here to stay.

I guess it’s like the moments when human beings transitioned from the carefully handwritten parchment pages of centuries ago to printed words and presses, from typewriters to computers as well as audio and video.

Transitions are hard for those who know there is a transition afoot. For those who are born after the change, most don’t even know what went before.

The methods of reading have clearly changed and keep evolving, but the fact is, we need to read.

It may be an e-book rather than a print one. Still, reading is as important as breathing if we want to grow as people and are curious about more than just what’s in front of our noses.

As adults we can choose what we read. In school we are given a list of recommended and required reading that often makes no sense to us and seems to serve only the role of destroying our vacation times. Not quite.

There is a reason we must read. Reading will teach us that we are neither the first nor the last to experience this world. Reading will teach us how others before and just like us now see and interpret what is going on in their lives. Reading tells us stories from the past – which is part of the present and future.

When you read, you expand as a person. You absorb ways of seeing your world you cannot when you watch TV or go to the theater or a movie. You have to use your imagination. And imagination is where the health and growth of a human being meet.

I always recommend books to my patients. They are rarely medical books. Medical books are limited to diseases and diagnoses. Most patients can find their own sources of medical information without my help.

I recommend they read books about economics, statistics and philosophy, love stories and famous old books. The books I recommend help disconnect us from imminent worry and transport us to a world where as observers we can learn how to live our lives with perspective and courage.

Here are a few – Gerd Gigerenzer’s “Reckoning Without Risk,” Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.”

Just a few, to start with.

For more information, email Dr. Erika at Erika@drerika.com.

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