Tagged Books and Literature

The Merits of Reading Real Books to Your Children

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Credit Getty Images

A new Harry Potter book and a new round of stories about midnight book release parties reminded me of the persistent power of words printed on a page to shape children’s lives.

How do we think about a distinct role for paper, for “book-books” in children’s lives? My own pediatric cause is literacy promotion for young children. I am the national medical director of the program Reach Out and Read, which follows a model of talking with the parents of babies, toddlers and preschoolers about the importance of reading aloud, and giving away a developmentally appropriate children’s book at every checkup.

We are talking about very young children here, and we begin by giving out board books which are designed to be chewed and drooled on by babies who are still exploring the world orally, or thrown down (repeatedly) off the high chair by young children who are just figuring out object permanence and experimenting with ways to train their parents to fetch and retrieve. But the most essential attribute of those board books, beyond their durability, is that they pull in the parent, not only to pick them up, but to ask and answer questions, name the pictures, make the animal noises.

I love book-books. I cannot imagine living in a house without them, or putting a child to bed in a room that doesn’t have shelves of books, some tattered and beloved, some new and waiting for their moment. It’s what I wanted for my own children, and what I want for my patients; I think it is part of what every child needs. There’s plenty that I read on the screen, from journal articles to breaking news, but I don’t want books to go away.

I would never argue that the child who loves to read is worse off because those “Harry Potter” chapters turn up on the screen of an ebook reader rather than in those matched sets of thick volumes that occupy my own children’s shelves. (Although I think there’s something wonderful about looking at the seven books of the series and remembering a midnight party in a bookstore or two, and sometimes coming home from high school or college and taking one — or all seven — to bed with you.)

But what about the younger children, the ones who are working to master spoken language while taking the early steps in their relationships with books and stories? There’s a lot of interest right now in pediatrics in figuring out how electronic media affect children’s brains and children’s learning styles and children’s habits.

In a 2014 review of studies on electronic storybooks, researchers outlined some of the ways that such stories could help young children learn, and some of the ways that they could hurt. They pointed out that especially for children with language delays, certain features of electronic books that reinforce the connection between image and word (for example, animated pictures) may help children integrate information, but that distracting features and games may cause “cognitive overload,” which gets in the way of learning. And they worried, of course, that screen time might displace parent-child time.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is one of the authors of the coming American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on media use for children from birth to age 5. “Preschool children learn better when there’s an adult involved,” she said. “They learn better when there are not distracting digital elements, especially when those elements are not relevant to the story line or the learning purpose.”

In a small study published in February in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers looked at the interactions between parents and their children, ages 10 to 16 months, and found that when they were playing with electronic toys, both parents and children used fewer words or vocalizations than they did with traditional toys. And picture books evoked even more language than traditional toys.

Words and pictures can do many things for the reader’s brain, as we know from the long and glorious and even occasionally inglorious history of the printed word. They can take you into someone else’s life and someone else’s adventure, stir your blood in any number of ways, arouse your outrage, your empathy, your sense of humor, your sense of suspense. But your brain has to take those words and run with them, in all those different directions. Brain imaging has suggested that hearing stories evokes visual images in children’s brains, and more strongly if those children are accustomed to being read to.

And a parent can offer questions and interpretations that take the experience beyond bells and whistles. “A parent can ask, ‘Oh, remember that duck we saw at the pond?’,” Dr. Radesky said. “When a parent relates what’s on the page to the child’s experience, the child will have a richer understanding.”

Story time can also be good for the grown-ups. “Parents have said to me, ‘I need that 30 minutes of reading, it’s the only time my child snuggles with me,’ ” Dr. Radesky said. “We shouldn’t only think about what the child is getting from it.”

Part of what makes paper a brilliant technology may be, in fact, that it offers us so much and no more. A small child cannot tap the duck and elicit a quack; for that, the child needs to turn to a parent. And when you cannot tap the picture of the horse and watch it gallop across the page, you learn that your brain can make the horse move as fast as you want it to, just as later on it will show you the young wizards on their broomsticks, and perhaps even sneak you in among them.

Reading and being read to open unlimited stories; worlds can be described and created for you, right there on the page, or yes, on the screen, if that is where you do your later reading. But as those early paper books offer you those unlimited stories, the pictures will move if you imagine the movement; the duck will quack if you know how to work your parent. It’s all about pushing the right buttons.

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Read Books, Live Longer?

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Credit Bryan Thomas for The New York Times

Reading books is tied to a longer life, according to a new report.

Researchers used data on 3,635 people over 50 participating in a larger health study who had answered questions about reading.

The scientists divided the sample into three groups: those who read no books, those who read books up to three and a half hours a week, and those who read books more than three and a half hours.

The study, in Social Science & Medicine, found that book readers tended to be female, college-educated and in higher income groups. So researchers controlled for those factors as well as age, race, self-reported health, depression, employment and marital status.

Compared with those who did not read books, those who read for up to three and a half hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die over 12 years of follow-up, and those who read more than that were 23 percent less likely to die. Book readers lived an average of almost two years longer than those who did not read at all.

They found a similar association among those who read newspapers and periodicals, but it was weaker.

“People who report as little as a half-hour a day of book reading had a significant survival advantage over those who did not read,” said the senior author, Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale. “And the survival advantage remained after adjusting for wealth, education, cognitive ability and many other variables.”

Harry Potter’s a Dad: ‘Accio, Pacifier!’

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Harry Potter fans wait for the release for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Harry Potter fans wait for the release for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”Credit Yeong-Ung Yang for The New York Times

Our family is just home from the bookstore, with multiple copies of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” in hand, gamely reading in a new format — the book is the script of the play by the same name, and thus a different reading experience from the seven novels that came before it.

There will be no spoilers here, but the very title makes clear that “The Cursed Child” is a story about parents and children in a way that the original series never was. Harry Potter is a father now, and one question this book will answer is how the Boy Who Lived — when his parents didn’t — handles that role.

As an orphan, Harry himself could operate free of the burden a parent’s fears, love and expectation can place on a person. Now, as a parent, he has to confront it.

For readers who started reading these books when the first one came out nearly 20 years ago and grew up with Harry and friends, the scenes that reveal the characters as adults are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Though the story has serious themes, the sheer fun of returning to the familiar magical world is a delight.

And there are certainly moments when real-life parents can fantasize about the possibility of a magical assist. Imagine being able to use a spell like “Accio Binky!” to return a dropped pacifier to the sleeping baby, or “Expelliarmus Mobilio!” to expel a mobile phone right out of a teenager’s hand.

Molly Brennan, a mother of two attending a book release party on Saturday night at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J., suggested a spell called Behavioramus. “I would dodge it,” said her son, Logan Brown, 9. “I like my behavior how it is.”

Becky Middleton of Glen Ridge, N.J., who has four children ages 6, 9, 9 and 11, said her spell of choice would be volume control. Rob Fechner of Montclair, the father of two boys ages 7 and 10, asked for a spell “to pause time so I could get stuff done and take a nap.”

It’s giving nothing away to say that none of those abilities seem likely to make raising children any simpler for Harry, Ginny, Hermione and Ron. As Julia Miner, a mother of three who lives outside Washington, D.C., said Sunday, when she was up to page 70 of “The Cursed Child,” parenting teenagers has challenges no matter who you are. Magic has never helped much with relationships in the Harry Potter universe, and the fact that wizards face some of the same bitter limits that Muggles do has always been a part of the series’ appeal.

But for many parents and children in this universe, the books are conversation–starters that help connect us, engaging us in the same world. Now our conversations can go further.


In the comments or on Facebook, tell us what spell would help you most as a parent.

Reading Novels at Medical School

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Credit Getty Images

Sitting in a classroom at Georgetown Medical School usually reserved for committee meetings, we begin by reading an Emily Dickinson poem about the isolating power of sadness:

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.

It’s a strange sight: me, a surgical resident, reading poetry to 30 medical students late on a Tuesday night. Some of us are in scrubs, others in jeans; there are no white coats. Over the past four years, as the leader of the group, this has become my routine.

The students are here after long days in class and on the wards because they have discovered that medical education is changing them in ways that are unsettling. I remember that uneasiness well. My own medical education began with anatomy lab. The first day with the cadaver was unnerving, but after the first week the radio was blaring as we methodically dissected the anonymous body before us.

Two years later, on my first clinical rotation, I discovered that it does not take long to acclimate to the cries of patients as I hurried past their rooms, eager not to fall behind in a setting where work must be done quickly and efficiently. This practiced detachment feels necessary, a form of emotional and physical self-preservation. But with little time to slow down, ignoring our own thoughts and feelings quickly hardens into a habit.

During my first year in medical school, I found myself gravitating toward my old comfort zone — literature. As an English major, I had grown accustomed to the company of books and was feeling their absence now that “Don Quixote” had been displaced by Netter’s “Atlas of Human Anatomy.” I could look to Netter for concrete answers, but I needed Cervantes to help me formulate questions I had trouble pinning down, like why it was so easy to ignore the dead (and later, living) bodies around me? Illustrated cross-sections of the brain did little to illuminate the workings of my own mind. I needed time and space for introspection. The solution came in the form of a book club that later became an official course.

At Georgetown, the goal of our new literature and medicine track is to foster habits of reflection over four years of medical school. On the surface, the assigned books have nothing to do with medicine. We read no patient narratives, doctors’ memoirs or stories about disease.

Today’s topic is Haruki Murakami’s novel “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” which tells the story of a depressed middle-aged Tokyoite’s attempt to retrace his past in order to understand how his life became so empty. We talk about the main character’s colorless perception of the world, and why his mind feels so inaccessible to us.

I receive an email from a student later that evening. He, an aspiring psychiatrist, tells me the story of a much-admired college mentor. “I heard last week that he committed suicide. I am still crushed,” he writes. “He was diagnosed with depression but seemed to be doing great.” If he so misjudged his teacher’s state of mind, he worries, how will he make it as a psychiatrist?

Earlier this year, we placed the ethics of animal testing under the magnifying glass of Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” The novel is narrated by a woman whose “sibling,” we later discover, is a chimpanzee who was raised with her as part of a human-chimp experiment. We used the book to think through real-life examples like the Silver Spring Monkeys — a series of gruesome primate experiments that both galvanized American animal-rights groups and led to breakthrough scientific discoveries.

A third-year student talked about the three years he spent working with rhesus macaques. Research from his lab led to breakthrough discoveries about memory and behavior and contributed to therapies such as deep brain stimulation. “Doesn’t that answer the ethical questions?” he asked.

Another student talked about studies that she worked on for several years before starting medical school. “Have you heard of professional testers?” she asked the room. “People whose only source of income is volunteering for different studies, mostly college kids and immigrants? Shouldn’t we be talking about human research also?” For me, the discussion proved transformative. I walked into that class firmly supporting animal research and walked away still supporting research but no longer eating meat.

Our busy jobs on the hospital wards require precision and efficiency, but in literature class we can slow down and explore human lives and thoughts in a different, more complex way. The class is an anatomy lab of the mind. We examine cultural conventions and conflicting perspectives, and reflect on our own preconceived notions about life and work. Reading attentively and well, we hope, will become a sustaining part of our daily lives and practice.

As I’m walking out of the classroom at the end of the evening, a third-year student approaches me to tell me he’s been thinking more deeply about his experience of being an unrelated organ donor to his step-uncle, a man he barely knew. “It’s been on my mind since we read Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ last month,” he says. “I want to write about it. I don’t even know how I feel about it, and I need to figure it out.”

Daniel Marchalik, M.D., is a urologist in Washington and heads the literature and medicine track at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.