Reading classics

First of all, let me apologise to my subscribers for being off line for several weeks.  My publisher (Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co.) hosts the site, and for some reason, they took the site off line.  After I protested twice (the second time quite vehemently) the site went back on line.  Sorry about that.

There was an article in the Sunday Telegraph about two weeks ago which caught my attention.  The title read: “Fact of fiction: how reading the classics gives the brain a boost”.  The article went on to say:

“Academics at Liverpool University found that reading the works of the Bard and other classical writers had a beneficial effect on the mind, by catching the reader’s attention and triggering moments of self-reflection.

“Using scanners, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they read pieces by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot and others.  Scans showed that the more ‘challenging’ prose and poetry set off more electrical activity in the brain than more pedestrian sections.

“Scientists were able to study the brain activity as readers responded to each word and noticed how it ‘lit up’ as they encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure.

In the first part of the research, the brain activity of 30 volunteers was monitored as they read passages from Shakespeare’s plays . . . and again as they re-read the text re-written in simpler form.  While reading the plain text, normal levels of electrical activity were displayed in their brains.  When they read Shakespeare, however, the levels of activity ‘jumped’ because of the use of unfamiliar words.

“In one example, volunteers read a line form King Lear: ‘A father and gracious aged man: him have you madded’. Shakespeare’s use use of the adjective ‘mad’ as a verb caused a higher level of brain activity than the straighforward prose.

The study went on to test how long the effect lasted.  It found that the ‘peak’ triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained  into the folowing phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind ‘primed for more attention.’

“Volunteers’ brains were scanned while reading four lines by Wordsworth: ‘She lived unknown and few could know when Lucy ceased to be.  But she is in her grave and oh the difference to me’.  Four translated lines were also provided: ‘She lived a lonely life in the country and nobody seems to know or care, but now she is dead, and I feel her loss.’  The first version caused a greater degree of brain activity, lighting up not only the left part of the brain concerned with language, but also the right hemisphere that relates to autobiographical memory and emotion.”

This makes sense to me, but I think that some comments are in order.  First, poetry is a different medium than prose: it is more condensed and tends to convey more feeling.  That being the case, one would expect the reader to be more engaged with a well constructed poem than with its prose equivalent.

Second, (apart from the use of ‘mad’ as a verb) the English language was different for the classical writers than it is today.  The English language is constantly evolving.  The reader therefore expects differences and their brains will be more alert.

Third, it is desirable but difficult for the writer today to achieve the same ‘brain boosting’ prose.  Desirable, because it captures the readers attention.  And difficult, because if the writer is not careful, s/he can create distrust in the reader.  The reader may begin to believe, ‘s/he is just making this novel difficult not for artistic reasons, but just for the sake of being different in their writing style.’

This is a particular concern of mine which I have touched upon in other posts: how to write in a style that the reader finds interesting for artistic reasons not just to differentiate my writing from that of other writers.