Suppose you unexpectedly had three hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon with nothing to do – no grocery shopping, no laundry, no Internet.
Would you spend it with a REALLY GOOD friend?
Or would you spend it with a REALLY GOOD book?
* * * * *
When this question popped into my mind, I put it to Sam. He answered “friend.” I answered “book.” And that started me thinking about the role of books in my life.
I like reading a really good novel more than anything. More than gardening, making jewelry, cuddling with the cat, going out to a gourmet restaurant. The key phrase is “really good,” and I find myself becoming pickier and picker about books as I get older. But if a novel is really good, I would pretty much rather read about other people’s lives than live my own.
I’ve loved reading since second or third grade, when I tore through all two dozen books in the Oz series. I would get a new one and curl up on the couch and not put it down until my mother crowbarred me away to eat dinner or do homework.
I wonder if those kinds of positive early reading experiences rewire our brains – if they create some kind of permanent connection between the physical act of reading and neurotransmitters like dopamine that make us feel happy.
Maybe a child learns to read fluently, enjoys a particular bunch of books, and along the way carves neural pathways where the act of reading a book — regardless of the content of the book — generates comfort or pleasure?
I have no idea if anyone has tried to study this. But maybe the act of reading is my personal drug. Simply going through those familiar physical motions with my eyes and brain makes me secure and happy.
Then what about my decision as a child that I wanted to be a writer? At the time I wasn’t thinking of fame or fortune or the thrill of seeing my name on a book jacket. I just wanted to create more of what I loved.
I talked about this with my daughter, who is taking a high school psychology class. “If my brain responds to reading like smoking dope, does being a writer make me a dope dealer?” I asked.
She thought for a minute. “No, more like a grower,” she said. “The publishers would be the dealers.”
Well, when you consider the alternatives, reading is not at all a bad drug to choose. If only the problem with America’s schools were that kids were reading too much!
But still, there’s something unsettling about realizing I would choose reading a book over coffee with a friend. That sometimes I like reading better than living.
How about you – on that hypothetical rainy Sunday afternoon?
A really good book? Or a really good friend?
And what do you think that says about you?