Bookworms Live Longer!

There is an article in the latest issue of my alumni magazine under the heading ‘Findings’ which announces: “Book readers’ lives were two years longer than non-readers.”


The article continues: “The next time you talk to a clinician about how you’re taking care of your health, you might want to include a discussion of your reading habits.  Although sedentary activities are not usually regarded as promoting health, a recent study by Yale researchers showed a significant link between book reading and longevity.  (The work was published in the journal Social Science and Medicine.)  Researchers examined data from 3,635 individuals who have been involved over several years is a nationwide health study of people over the age of 50.  Based on their answers  to the question: “How many hours did you spend last week reading books?” respondents were divided into three groups: those who read no books, those who read books for up to  three and a half hours, and those who read books for more than three and a half hours.

“The study showed a marked advantage for book readers.  Over twelve years of follow-up, those who read books for up to three and a half hours per week were 17 percent less likely to die than those who did not read books, while those who read most were 23 percent less likely.  Book readers averaged a two-year longer life span than those who did not read at all.

“Older individuals, regardless of gender, health status, wealth, or education showed the survival advantage of reading books,” says Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology.  The survival advantage, she adds, persisted after adjustments for baseline cognition – meaning that it was the benefits of reading, rather that the reader’s cognitive capacity, that helped lengthen life spans.  “More questions need to be answered,” Levy says.  “But we know that reading books involves two cognitive processes that could confer a survival advantage: the slows, deep immersion needed to connect to content; and promotion of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”

Merry Christmas and a long life to all my readers!

A Literate Electorate

An article in the  October 24 issue of Time Magazine got my attention.  Its title is “The Literacy of Long-Form Thinking”, and it was written by James Patterson.  Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about James Patterson: “(born March 22, 1947) is an American author. He is largely known for his novels about fictional psychologist Alex Cross, the protagonist of the Alex Cross series. Patterson also wrote the Michael Bennett, Women’s Murder Club, Maximum Ride, Daniel X, NYPD Red, and Witch and Wizard series, as well as many stand-alone thrillers, non-fiction and romance novels. His books have sold more than 300 million copies and he holds the Guinness World Record for being the first person to sell 1 million e-books.  In 2016, Patterson topped Forbe’s  list of highest-paid authors for the third consecutive year, earning $95 million.  His total earnings over a decade are estimated at approximately $700 million.

In November 2015, Patterson received the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation, which cited him as a “passionate campaigner to make books and reading a national priority. A generous supporter of universities, teachers colleges, independent bookstores, school libraries, and college students, Patterson has donated millions of dollars in grants and scholarships with the purpose of encouraging Americans of all ages to read more books.


James Patterson

The article begins: “A man from ancient Rome said it was better to know nothing about a subject than to half-know it.  I’m worried that this republic of ours is set on proving this wisdom all over again.  Only, we aren’t even bothering to know 50% of what’s going on.  Seems to me we’re satisfied with understanding 10% of something before we grow bored and turn to the next thing.  I say this based on what I know about the most important knowledge-building habit we have: reading.  We’re becoming a nation of functional illiterates . . . incapable of pursuing a train of thought for more than minutes at a time.

“The annual survey on time use by the Bureau of Labor Statistics put some proof to something I think we all knew was coming our way.  We have let our standards fall so far that this year’s first-time voters are, on average,  in the habit of reading for personal interest less than 10 minutes a day.  People aged 75 and older read about an hour a day.  The habit drops off through each 10-year bracket below that  until you get  to people ages 35 to 44 years old.  They’re reading 12 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays and less than 10 during the week.  Younger than that , it gets only worse.   That’s right – the majority of potential voters are reading less than 10 minutes a day,  You scared of that?  I am.  But I’m not surprised.  As a country, we seem to be entirely losing the capacity for long-term thinking.

“. . . An adult who absorbs words only through captions, tweets, posts, memes and – at best – smartphone screen-sized articles is not literate.  Not in my book anyhow.  I’d argue . . . that if we’re not in the habit of reading books or at least long-form articles that take us the better part of an hour in the course of an entire day, we are fundamentally damaging our society’s fabric, and our future.   We are becoming a nation of distracted nincompoops who don’t have the patience to bother finding out if lies are lies and – because we have lost the mental capacity to do otherwise – are forced to judge issues on the basis of style and delivery rather than substance and accuracy.

“Are you upset about the direction of this society?  Then fix it.  You’re a reader.  You know what reading does for your ability to think things through.  Get out there and make this your number 1 priority.  Got a kid?  Make her read 20 minutes a day.  Got a neighbor who stares at this phone all day?  Get him a good book.  Volunteer at the library.  Volunteer at  school.  At the very least, subscribe to a newspaper or magazine that supports long-term journalism and stop reading stuff for free through your screen.”

I couldn’t agree more!  Western society – not just  the US – is in very serious trouble!

Joan Wickersham

There is an interview called “Inside the Writing Life” in my high school alumni magazine.  A prominent English instructor is interviewing Joan Wickersham who graduated nearly two decades after me.  Ms Wickersham has been writing most of the time since graduation; her work includes her memoir and 2008 National Book Award finalist, The Suicide Index; a book of short fiction, The News from Spain; and The Paper Anniversary, a novel.  She writes a regular op-ed column for The  Boston Globe; her writing has been published in prominent literary journals; and she has read her work on National Public Radio.


Joan Wickersham

Two questions and answers in this interview caught my eye.

Q: (David Weber) “You’ve sustained your output over many years.  Does the problem of writer’s block seem remote to you, or have you struggled at times to give your work the priority required?”

Wickersham: “There’s a very funny little moment in a movie I once saw, where a bored, impatient woman is trying to figure out where a piece fits in a jigsaw puzzle and she finally just puts in somewhere and smacks it in with her fist.  Writer’s block is a sign that what I’m doing isn’t working, and I can’t fix it by trying to ram something into a place where it doesn’t belong. It can take months to figure out that what I thought was a piece of the sky is actually a piece of the ocean, or that its a part of a different puzzle altogether.  I hate writer’s block, but I’m always grateful to it in hindsight.  It usually means that what I’ve been writing is somehow false, which is just as bad in fiction as nonfiction.  Writer’s block slows me down and makes me throw out pages and drafts – after I’d been working on the book about my father’s suicide for nine years, I threw out a 400 page manuscript and started over – but getting stuck can be an important investment in finding the right way to tell a story.”

I like this way of thinking about writer’s block: it’s not you that are the problem; it’s the story.  Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I feel cornered.  I’ll look back over what  I’ve written, and ask myself ‘what’s not working?’  Other times, particularly when I’m lying awake at night, I’ll start feeling uneasy about the direction of a particular novel.  That feeling generally leads to surgery.  When I was writing Sable Shadow & The Presence, I threw out and re-wrote whole chapters of the book, which has gone on to win eight awards.

Q: “Does a fully realized piece require its own new form, not just descriptive skill and the authority of honesty?”

Wickersham: “A lot of what I’m doing when I write is trying to figure out the inherent rules of a particular piece – the form or structure which will be most true to the story.  My husband, Jay, is trained as an architect.  A long time ago, when I was struggling to write about my father’s suicide, he told me that the students at the École des Beaux-Arts begin each design with a parti – an organizing principle.  I found this idea of the parti exciting and liberating.  I’d been wresting for years with how to organize the messy and painful story of my father’s death, and part of the problem was that the story defied any attempt at a conventional linear narrative.  When I stumbled in the parti of organizing the book as an index, suddenly I had this cool, numb structure that simultaneously imposed order and ridiculed the idea of imposing order on an inherently chaotic experience”.

I never heard of the term parti before, but it makes sense.  The novel I’m currently working on has an unusual organizing principle: two increasingly hostile narrators, whose identity is obscure at first, tell alternating chapters about three, very different, young protagonists over whom they have influence, but no control.  The setting is present day East Africa.

Review: Selection Day

My wife bought me a copy of this novel – signed by the author!  – while I was briefly in the hospital (nothing very serious) and I wanted something to read.  Hospitals are a great place to read: one is always waiting for the next procedure to take place; one can make oneself comfortable; and it is not particularly noisy!  She bought it because I had asked for a novel by a Man Booker shortlist author.  The author, Aravind Adiga, actually won the Man Booker in 2008 for his first novel, The White Tiger.  Adiga was born in Madras (new Chennai) India in 1974; after achieving his secondary school certificate, he emigrated with his family to Australia, where he graduated from high school in Sydney.  He graduated, next, from Columbia University in 1997 and subsequently studied English literature at Magdelan College, Oxford.  He began his business career as a financial journalist with the Financial Times, Money and Time before becoming freelance.


Aravind Adiga

Selection Day is a book focused on Indian cricket and its effect on a Mumbai slum family of two boys and their compulsive father.  Radha, the older brother, expects to fulfill his father’s dream of being selected for a top Indian team.  Tommy Sir, a coach/agent/promoter introduces the boys father, Mohan, to a ‘businessman’, Anand Mehta, who pays Mohan a stipend in return for a large slice of the boy’s earnings when they become famous.  Unexpectedly, Manju, the younger boy, is the better batsman, scoring 497 not out in a crucial contest.  Radha has a ‘weight transfer problem’ which is inhibiting his effectiveness as a batsman.  Enter a rival, Javed, a cocky, rebellious, rich kid who is also a fine batsman, and who happens to be gay.  Manju, at the center of the story, is his older brother’s best friend and rival, and his father’s severest but respectful critic.  The younger batsman is torn between his admiration for Javed, and his reluctance to commit to an intimate relationship; and between careers in cricketing or in science.

Selection Day offers a rich mixture of conflicted, imperfect characters with whom the reader cannot help but empathize.  The setting of Mumbai is drawn with natural clarity; one feels truly present.  And without being a ‘book about cricket’, Selection Day, presents the culture, the mystique, the competitiveness of Indian youth critic captivatingly, without technical fussiness.  The dialogue is credible, but occasionally seems too tangential to lead the reader to any firm conclusions.  Perhaps, this is Mr Adiga’s intention with this novel: to make the point that, try as one might, there can never be the achievement of one’s ultimate dream.

This sense of failure seems to carry over into the two concluding parts of the novel: what happens after selection day and in the epilogue.  One cannot help but be engaged by the beautiful writing, the energy, and the unfolding future in the lead up to selection day.  The writing is as good, but the energy and the future have dissipated after selection day.  Perhaps this novel could feel more whole, more consistent, if dreams could be scaled back rather than dispelled, and the energy and the future modestly re-directed.