Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

The passport

When I was a kid, the high point of school was when we got the monthly Scholastic Book Club listings.

The opportunity to pick out a handful of books to buy -- at that point, back in the early 1970s, they cost an astonishing one or two dollars each -- turned me into the proverbial kid in the candy store.  I dutifully filled out my order form, submitted it and my money to the teacher -- and a few weeks later, there'd be a delivery of a box full of books to dole out to the students.

Pure magic.

It was in a SBC sale, when I was maybe twelve, that I got a copy of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

Afterwards, my world would never be the same again.

I completely lost myself in the adventures of Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace, along with their guides, the cheerful, shapeshifting Mrs. Whatsit, the classics-quoting Mrs. Who, and the mysterious and slightly intimidating Mrs. Which.  It was a glimpse into a universe the likes of which I'd never experienced before.

I was launched into a love of magical realism that is still with me today, fifty years later.  Along the way I discovered such masters as Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Guy de Maupassant, George MacDonald, and C. S. Lewis -- and later, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, and Haruki Murakami.  What I learned from them informed my imagination and writing style, inspiring my own career as an author.

My latest -- coming out September 1!

I'm not alone in the sense that reading fiction was a lifeline when I was a child.

Research out of the University of Cambridge, published this week in the journal Psychological Medicine, has found that young people who are encouraged to read for pleasure score better on cognitive tests and have overall better mental health during their teenage years than children who don't.  The study looked at over ten thousand children, and the results were unequivocal.

"Reading isn’t just a pleasurable experience," said study co-author Barbara Sahakian.  "It’s widely accepted that it inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy and reduces stress.  But on top of this, we found significant evidence that it’s linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health, and brain structure, which are cornerstones for future learning and well-being."

I can also say that in my case, it was a welcome escape from a home situation that was -- to put it mildly -- non-ideal.  Knowing I could leave behind the unpleasantness I was immersed in daily, and tesser to the stars with Meg Murry and her friends, was a gateway to a world where I could forget my troubles, at least for a little while.

I shudder to think what my mental health would have been like if I hadn't had that magic door to escape through.

It's why I think equal emphasis should be given in schools to reading for comprehension and analysis, and reading for pure enjoyment.  Too much focus on the former, and the risk is convincing students that reading is a boring chore.  Yes, there's value in sharpening skills, and getting kids to think more deeply about what they read; but what we ideally want is getting them hooked -- and that only happens if they have an opportunity to explore what they want to read, whatever the genre or subject matter.

"We encourage parents to do their best to awaken the joy of reading in their children at an early age," said study co-author Jianfeng Feng.  "Done right, this will not only give them pleasure and enjoyment, but will also help their development and encourage long-term reading habits, which may also prove beneficial into adult life."

For some of them -- like myself -- it is not just beneficial, it was vital.  I still remember the thrill of getting my books from SBC, and even today I experience that same feeling when I walk into a bookstore or used book sale.  And it's what turned me into an author, now with twenty-two published books to my name.  My hope is that those books will be an inspiration to others -- perhaps providing them with a passport to other places and times, allowing them for a little while to glimpse the magic of worlds and characters beyond their own everyday experience.


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