We do what we know from what we read

Opinion  |  Eric Loo
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | Are you a deep reader who goes through a book cover-to-cover and easily recall what you have read?

What I had read last week, I can only remember vaguely. And that’s prompted by the book’s title and author’s name.

I have no favourite author though. I rely on informed reviewers for leads on non-fiction books worth shelving for repeat readings. One that I borrowed from the library is Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007) by Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and scholar of reading.

One of Wolf’s insights is particularly informative: “Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually.”

Given the plasticity of our brain, according to Wolf, reading changes the neural structures of our brain and, hence, our appreciation of different types of prose and intellectual capacity to grasp complex arguments.

Wolf’s right. The Internet has radically changed our reading habits, particularly that of the millennial digital generation.

The human ability to read goes way back to when Homo sapiens, the ‘knowing man’, ‘the wise man’ first evolved. They came to interpret symbols and signs, and evolved to understand their world through cave drawings.

Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now (2018) notes in a chapter on knowledge: “Our understanding of who we are, where we came from, how the world works, and what matters in life depends on partaking of the vast and ever-expanding store of knowledge.”

‘Knowing and doing’

Indeed, we are what we read for different reasons and purposes. I read mainly for work to generate fresh ideas, and double-check what I thought I knew. How little I know.

Stephen King in his memoir, On Writing notes: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the tools to write”. Hence, my collection of non-fiction books over the years, displayed on the shelves, many yet to be read, some bookmarked...

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