One lives longer by visiting the public library

Reading is a kind of sport. We must all learn to read; and then practise reading for the rest of our lives. Scientific research has shown that libraries and reading are likely to extend life expectancy considerably more than any other physical exercise. The brain is a body organ that needs work-out and constant stimulation – and reading is the best activity for this.

According to Keith Oatley, writing in New Scientist, fiction improves one’s IQ. The public library is therefore a kind of health centre. Hrafn Andres Hardarson and Margret Sigurgeirsdottir, librarians at Kopavogur Public Library/ Bokasafn Kopavogs, Iceland, say: “You live longer by visiting your local library, borrowing books and reading them.”

Reading is a kind of sport. Everyone must learn to read. Once learned, it is then imperative to maintain this skill by constantly reading – both fiction and non-fiction – both for one’s betterment and for the sheer enjoyment of it. Exercising the tools of reading, the eyes and the brain, means that the sport of reading is also a training for a healthy brain.

Libraries are the power stations for this sport of reading and are where endless processes of reaction take place in thousands of brains. People of all ages walk or run or take buses or cycle to their library (others may of course choose to come by car or taxi) so as to select books and other media to take home. And this movement to and from the library is both sound and refreshing.

Using scientific research, it has been proved that the reading of books and the use of libraries actually lengthens people’s lives. In fact, these investigations show that it is more likely to make us live longer than any other physical activity. As a corollary to this, it has become evident that people who smoke but do not read have a shorter life expectancy than those who smoke but do read. In other words, reading has been shown to extend life; and the benefits of using libraries surpass other social activities such as work-outs in the sports centre. Run by municipalities, libraries can therefore be seen as something akin to health care centres. As library people have long known, the brain is a part of the body that needs both practice and challenges to function fully. Reading is the best braintraining possible; and the combination of this and of walking regularly to the library is something both healthier and cheaper than many other pastime activities.

Whilst other sports may also be beneficial, all of them having many positive aspects, the list of additional things that are also health-giving is topped by reading. Your local library is therefore to be seen as a physical training centre and a place of energy generation as much as a culture centre. It can therefore be concluded that to drop by the library and train one’s brain is a smart thing to do.

The example of the woman who says that reading is best

“Some years back I became ill and had to undergo a general anaesthetic on several occasions within a short period. Following this, in spite of being a book-lover, I suddenly stopped reading and became rather forgetful. Something that was far from pleasant for me. I had always kept myself quite fit by working out and felt that I should therefore have been in good shape. But while my body had recovered fully, reading was a problem for me. I simply could not concentrate on books or other information media. I was neither able to remember things nor to apply myself properly to anything.”

Something had to be done. “Thinking of how one has a personal trainer for the body, I transferred this idea to training for the brain. So I went to school and for a whole winter I sat on a school bench and completed a course. And this was my personal training for the brain. This obliged meto read simply because the courses all finished with an exam. Through this work my memory improved greatly and I found that I was once again able to concentrate and get real enjoyment from reading. And so, in my opinion, reading is the best of all activities. It was this that saved me.”

Another example that is relevant is the Kopavogur Library’s Literary Club which has now been running for over 25 years. It was aimed at people over 50 and was intended as a ‘soft landing into old age’. It currently has about 30 members, including some of the founders who are now close to 100 years old. It only meets during the winter months and in spite of what the weather may be like, they all attend every single meeting. Do we need further proof?

The eyes are the portals of memory and remembering

Our eyes are a part of the body that needs training; and for this purpose reading is particularly suitable. At the same time they clearly also need to be rested so as not to overstrain them. That is where one of the beneficial side- effects of reading enters the story, the side-effect being memory since, through reading, we also collect other people’s memories into our brain’s store. Furthermore, when we read something that we especially like, we tend to make the effort to learn it by heart. Once learned, it can then be brought to mind time and again, and recited silently or out loud – and even with one’s eyes closed, the eyes thus being given the chance to rest.

In the article Besök ofte ditt lokale bibliotek og lev lenger (4) it says:

“The library is a formal space where people from many different walks of life can meet without concern. With no regard for either age, gender or social standing, all sorts of friendships and relationships can easily develop from such meetings. In this way a visit to the library can be seen as a thoroughly positive experience, something which can indeed lengthen our lives.”

Dr. med Docent Markku T. Hyppa of the Nasjonalt Folke- helseinstitutt in Finland sees this participation in the social community as something that both strengthens democratic awareness and encourages further activity. After many years of research, he concludes that the library is one of the few institutions where everyone can meet on an equal footing, which makes it an extremely healthy place for people.

‘Novels make one smarter.’ Read novels, be smarter

In an interesting article in Morgunbladid on Saturday, 23rd August 2008, Throstur Helgason wrote:

“Keith Oatley, writing in New Scientist, says: “For the first time it can now be proved that fiction has a good effect on one’s soul.” Oatley, himself a novelist, is also a professor in psychology and leads a team of researchers at the Univer- sity of Toronto which has studied the effects of reading fiction on a person’s intelligence.

In an interview with The Toronto Star, Oatley says that the reading of fiction seems to stimulate those parts of the brain where compassion and empathy are born. “When you read a novel you are allowing yourself to become another person for a short time; and this loosens up the strictures of your own personality. Through a series of studies, we have discovered that, at its best, fiction is not only enjoyable but also enhances our ability to empathise with other people, thereby connecting us with something larger than ourselves.”

The article goes on: “Oatley and his team ran a combination of experiments before arriving at their conclusions. They first assembled a number of people who were split evenly between those who liked and those who disliked fiction. Both groups took a series of diagnostic tests to determine their social acumen. The fiction readers, they found, demonstrated “substantially greater empathy” than their counterparts. But which came first, they wondered, the chicken or the egg? Could it be that people who are naturally more socially developed gravitate towards fiction, that their affinity for novels is an expres- sion, not a cause, of their talent for empathy? To resolve this, the researchers then came up with another experiment, this one involving Chekhov’s story The Lady With The Dog.

First, researcher Maja Djikic wrote a ‘control’ version of the story. This was written in a documentary style, was the same length as the original and described precisely the same events. This was rated just as interesting by Group A (non-fiction readers) as Group B’s (fiction readers) rating of the original text. Before and after the reading, both groups filled out questionnaires which evaluated their personality traits and emotions.

Oatley declined to speculate much further, pointing out that similar experiments using video games or movies instead of Russian literature could very well produce comparable results. Andhe freely admitted that there were many questions his findings did not resolve.Would, for instance, a short story by Chekhov produce the same result as a Tom Clancy airport thriller? In which is one more likely to gather knowledge about a people, a pop novel or a literary memoir? And what about a piece of writing that purports to be non-fiction but is actually to a great extent made up (à la James Frey); or a piece of fiction that is actually a thinly concealed account of things that real people really did?

Oatley concedes that it is possible his research applies, if not exclusively then at least especially, to good fiction. But what is good fiction?

This article was published in the Icelandic daily Morgunbladid and the Iceland Library Association’s Bókasafnsi in Icelandic.

Hrafn Andres Hardarson FCLIP
and Margret Sigurgeirsdottir MS
Bokasafn Kopavogs, Hamraborg 6a, 200 Kopavogur. ICELAND
hrafnah AT
margretsig AT

MS Bokasafn Kopavogs, Hamraborg 6a, 200 Kopavogur. ICELAND