"To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations -- such is a pleasure beyond compare." - 14th century Japanese monk Kenko Yoshida
Few experiences in life have the potential to be as profound, spiritual, transcendent, and transformational as the reading of a good book, quietly and in solitude. No matter what is transpiring in our lives -- no matter how many storms of change or winds of chaos that blow -- we can always find comfort and solace and succor on the pages of a cherished book. How unfortunate then that so many of us no longer make the time to partake in one of life's greatest and simplest joys. Words truly have the power to soothe our souls and comfort our spirits, to offer us a glimpse of other worlds and ways of being, and to shine light on our own hopes and dreams. The more I read, the more I know, but more importantly, the more I get to know myself.
As a child, my mother would take me to the local library and let me wander the stacks and sections to my heart's delight. Wide-eyed and curious, I remember picking up a children's biography of Marie Curie and becoming fascinated by her life. She was a pioneer in the study of radioactivity, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only person to win a Nobel in both physics and chemistry, the first female professor at the Sorbonne. She was my hero! Seeds were planted in my eight-year-old mind that day. Maybe someday I would be a scientist too, or a writer, or a ballerina, or an astronaut. Books have that quiet, ineffable power; the power to ignite our minds and spark our imaginations. A power that neither television nor movies nor the Internet can rival.
Books too have the ability to help us unwind, de-stress, rejuvenate, and relax. They may help us luxuriate in a slower pace of life and give us the chance to reflect on the nature of our own existence. Try picking up a book after a stressful day at work or a quarrel with a lover -- maybe a biography, a memoir, a fiction, or a fantasy. A history of ancient Egypt or a travel guide on modern Turkey. A mystery, a romance, or a thriller. The choice is yours and the possibilities are vast, exciting, and endless.
As you read widely and well, you gain knowledge of course; more importantly though, you learn about yourself -- your fears, your wishes, your dreams, and your desires. Reading, if we let it, can be a wonderfully natural stimulator of deep thought and introspection. I remember a former patient of mine, a man in his late 60s who had been battling depression and alcoholism for years, to whom I recommended a particularly poetic book on the nature of happiness. Once he finally finished the tome, slowly and at his own pace, he rather poignantly said to me, "Doc, I wish I had read this book as a young man. My life would have turned out differently." Such is the power of books. They can literally transform our lives.
Reading regularly also allows us to invigorate and exercise our minds, just as physical activity exercises our limbs. It helps us to stay sharp and mentally agile, well into our golden years. We learn to be alone with ourselves, to sit in focused concentration, to be in a state of mindful meditation. Books become our teachers, our friends, our therapists. As the great Somerset Maugham once said, "To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life." A powerful endorsement of the written word if I ever heard one.
Which reminds me of an incident many moons ago, during medical school, when I was reading a novel, wholly unrelated to medicine, in the school library. A particularly officious med student called out to me, "Hey, why are you reading that? That's not going to help you pass the exam!" Ah, yes, I knew that well and somewhat guiltily, but I just couldn't help myself. The allure of the novel was too much to resist, so much so that I was willing to risk my all-important medical school grades to read it (fortunately, I ended up passing). But the example illustrates the sheer magnetism and hold that good books can have over us. And instead of fighting that magic force, let's learn to embrace it, succumb to it, revel in it. Let's joyfully and unabashedly return the book to its rightful place in our psyches and in our hearts. Here's wishing you many a sunny day of beautiful reading ahead. May your future be filled with good books.