So lately, I’ve realized that I like to read books with my cell phone. No, I never have caught on to reading books online. I love the smell of paper, ink and a hint of dust or must. No, as an old-school reader, I love books. But I also love the luxury of Googling about whatever I might encounter in a book. A while back I read The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson and Googled the blue people of Kentucky.
And when I read Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, she argued that first contact in North and South America resulted in the death of 56 million lives, by violence and disease. That accounted for 90 percent of all the lands’ original inhabitants, actually changing “the amount of carbon in the atmosphere,” an outcome no one could have imagined then. That was hard to believe until I Googled her source, Alexander Koch et al., “Earth System Impacts of the European Arrival and Great Dying in the America after 1492." (I admit it was just an astract, but the actual report would probably have been over my head.)
When I read The Brutal Telling, another of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache mysteries, I wondered whether Emily Carr was a real artist. I Googled her and found that she was. I also discovered that her paintings of British Columbia and its indigenous villages were mesmerizing. So I bought a novel based on her life and a jigsaw puzzle of one of her paintings – so this winter I’ll have more projects.
And this week, as I renewed my practice of reading, my cell phone has also played a role. Reading The Other Bennett Sister, Janice Hadlow’s account of Mary, the reticent and plainest of Elizabeth’s sisters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, I found myself in the midst of a conversation about poetry. I Googled William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” which I hadn’t read since college (remember the Norton anthologies of poetry?). And that prompted me to pull a couple of books of poetry off my shelves, reread some favorites and a few new ones.
I may be the last reader of physical books who refers regularly to my cell phone as I turn the paper pages before me. But now, with a couple of clicks, I can illustrate and footnote every book I pick up. That’s another way to reinvigorate my reading habit!
Forgive me, but I feel like boasting. I got up early this morning, savored half a grapefruit with my almond butter and toast. (That’s a rare treat because I’m not supposed to eat grapefruit because of a medication that I take. Occasionally, I cheat.) Once the neighborhood was awake, I washed my ancient car. I do it once a year and, while I know it’s more ecological to take it to a carwash (and I’ve done that), this year, I did it in my driveway. I tried to be conscientious about the water. I used it sparingly and I rushed to finish. I set a record for my 67-year-old self: I washed the car, using a toothbrush to scrub off some of the mold and mildew, in 45 minutes. I pulled the car into the garage and decided to vacuum it out as well and managed that in 15 minutes. For some reason that I don’t want to dwell on, I take a perverse kind of pleasure from accomplishing tasks that sometimes surprise my adult children.
But that’s not all. As I put away the rags, brushes and bucket I’d used on the car, I noticed that my backyard was shady and peaceful. By late morning, it’s usually sunny and often hot and the sounds of kids playing, lawn mowers and leaf blowers disturb the early morning peace. But while I was still in bed this morning, I had read a good piece by Alissa Wilkinson in VOX, “How to fall back in love with reading,” with the subhed, “Even when your brain feels like mush.”
Apparently, in 2021, almost a quarter of Americans said they hadn’t read a book in the past year. Yikes! I have kept track of all the books I have read since a friend gave me a journal for just that purpose back in 2001. Over the years, I know that I’ve read fewer books than I once did and that sometimes depresses me. But I’ve never not read a book – for a few days or a month or a year.
The article includes several reasons for readers to pick up books. This was my favorite one: Research revealed “a short-term decrease in the need for ‘cognitive closure’ in the minds of readers of fiction.” In other words, “those with a high need for cognitive closure ‘need to reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion,’ and thus, when confronted with confusing circumstances, tend to seize on fast explanations and hang on to them.” The point being that such readers are “more susceptible to things like conspiracy theories and poor information, and they become less rational in their thinking.” And here’s the bottom line, “Reading fiction . . . tends to retrain the brain to stay open, comfortable with ambiguity, and able to sort through information more carefully.”
So, this morning, after washing my car, I dragged my Adirondack chair to the back corner of my backyard, filled a glass with ice water, set my cell phone timer for 30 minutes and, in the middle of the day, in the midst of a sizeable “to do” list, read a novel. With only the birds and one low flying airplane to keep my company, I enjoyed a few chapters of The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. Prompted by the plot, I did take a few minutes to Google and read William Wordsworth’s poem, “Tintern Abbey.” But more about that next time.
If you are a reader whose dedication to reading has been lagging during the pandemic and in the course of the world going to hell in a handbasket, I urge you to read Wilkinson’s piece and take a few minutes to resume your reading practice.
*A phrase from "Tintern Abbey"