“Discipline, not the Muse, results in productivity. If you write only when she beckons, your writing is not yours at all.”
― Kenneth Atchity, A Writer's Time: Making the Time to Write
"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
Back in October, 2014, Lila French's "Birdbath" had its festival debut at the NEW ORLEANS FILM FESTIVAL. The film screened twice (at notable venues The CAC nd The Prytania), and each screening had a full, energetic audience who responded positively to the film. There was laughter during the screenings and great questions after.
Elle Anderson waited until he was right on top of her. When he turned to yell for security, she shot her blade across the back of his ankle, cutting his Achilles tendon. The shock robbed him of his voice, and his body went crashing to the ground. She covered his mouth and slit his throat.
His body convulsed, making it harder to drag him into the shadows, but she needed to buy herself some time. She couldn’t risk one of the other men spotting him lying on the ground. It wasn’t perfect, and the man was still in the throes of death, but she had to go. Even if help were to arrive in the next couple of minutes, it would be too late. The only question was: How much time did she have before she had pursuit?
Sent in by the CIA, Elle Anderson leads a small, elite team charged with destroying the most dangerous terrorist organization the world has ever known. She is intelligent and resourceful and capable of anything, but she works in a world where emotions and distractions are unacceptable.
It’s a world with no set rules and where the game is driven by will. This sometimes means acting more like the villain than the hero, because it could mean the difference between life and death.
I've read some truly excellent books lately. The kind where you grow attached to the characters, miss them when they're gone. The kind where the haunting, lilting quality of the prose lifts you up, makes you think, expands your consciousness, has you emit little gasps of astonishment.
The kind you remember.
I am a voracious reader. I go through probably two to three books a week. Reading is my escape, my haven, my inspiration, my fascination.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was to come across research from the Yale School of Public Health demonstrating that reading books likely extends your lifespan by two years or more.
("Great!" I thought, "I'll have two more years to read.")
The Yale researchers were reviewing 12 years of data from the University of Michigan's Health and Retirement Study (HRS). The HRS is a longitudinal panel study that administers surveys to around 20,000 Americans over the age of 50 every two years. It is supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration, and is one of the largest longitudinal studies of its kind.
What the Yale researchers discovered was that in analyzing the health statuses and reading habits of over 3,600 men and women over the age of 50 in the HRS, a distinct pattern came to light.
It turned out that people who read books for at least 30 minutes a day were living, on average, two years longer than those who didn't read anything. Plus (and this part is important), the book readers were 23 percent less likely to die than people who were only reading newspapers or magazines.
In other words, if you want to live longer and have a more resilient brain, read books. Not just newspapers, magazines, tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram posts, or online articles. It doesn't matter whether the books are fiction or nonfiction; it just matters that they're books.
The Yale team had the same question you're probably asking right now: What is it about reading books specifically that boosts brain power and overall health, when things like newspapers and magazines don't?
The researchers had a few theories. First, books encourage what they deemed "deep reading." Rather than just skimming over a headline and the bite-sized information in an article or social-media post, reading a book forces you to make connections between chapters--and to the outside world.
When you make those connections, you forge new neural pathways between regions in both hemispheres of your brain, as well as in all four lobes. (It has been repeatedly demonstrated that establishing new neural networks is one of the best ways to stave off dementia and other cognitive decay.)
This concept was backed up by research out of Stanford that looked at the fMRI images of study participants tasked with reading a novel by Jane Austen. The researchers had participants first leisurely skim a passage (like you might do when deciding whether to purchase it at a bookstore), and then perform what they called "close reading"--reading as if you were studying it for an exam.
According to Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project, brain scans showed significant increases in blood flow during close reading. This, she suggests, shows that "paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions."
This makes sense to me on an intuitive as well as intellectual level. Because I feel different after reading disparate Instagram posts versus spending 30+ minutes reading a book. It's much like the difference between eating junk food and having a real meal; the shorter posts are fun and pleasurable to read, but I feel empty after scrolling. When I read my book, on the other hand, I feel filled up. Nourished.
If you're like most people, you want to live a long, healthy, and meaningful life. You want to contribute to the world. You want to be a leader.
But if you're constantly running around, scrolling through feeds, and never actually sitting down to relax and focus on something like reading a book for half an hour--half an hour!--you're doing your body and brain a disservice.
Taking care of yourself means more than just making sure you don't have three venti coffees in one day.
Build your brain. Read a book.
For those interested, here are the three best books I've read lately. They've each touched me in a different way, but they've all had a lasting impact...and likely added years onto my life:
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith (fiction): Some of the best writing I've seen in years. Stunning. Themes of redemption, aging, class, theft of all kinds, and love.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson (nonfiction): The true and riveting story of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, told alongside the story of a serial killer operating in the city at the same time. If you're from the U.S., you'll be stunned that didn't know more about this major part of American history.
The Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique (fiction): You have to pay close attention to this one--its themes are many and its eerie, lovely prose is as melodic as it is disturbing. Highly recommended.
"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." --Lemony Snicket
When a former physician now reporter teams up with his tenacious partner, they had no idea that the story of the murdered teen would lead them across continents, civilizations, religions and scientific research facilities. Who is trying to cover up hidden secrets of the universe? To what end?
Dave Davis has added enough twists and left enough imaginative breadcrumbs along the way that science fiction buffs, history buffs and lovers of all things mysterious and suspenseful will each find a compelling reason to turn page after page! Taut writing, believable characters and some “didn’t see that coming,” moments make this one of those tales that boggles the mind, because, what if?...
Love. Betrayal. Murder. Then the universe started to collapse. They say it all started in 1935 when Roz Lhulier and his team unearthed the massive tomb of Pakal, the greatest Mayan king, and with it, an ancient text, called a codex. They're wrong.
The codex is deciphered by Alan Turing, the genius who broke the German's Enigma Code during WWII, but its message is jealously guarded by the Astronomers, a lethal offspring of the Catholic Church. Astronomers have compromised or killed anyone with knowledge of the secret--presidents and prime ministers, just for instance.
The codex pulls others into its deadly orbit: Noah, a former physician, and his partner Kate, reporters for the Washington Post. They investigate the murder of DiShannia, a precocious teen, who's achieved national recognition for her research on the demise of Mayan civilization. They're led from Washington DC, to the British Museum, to the Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva, to Melbourne, Australia.
Each step enlightens them, offers clues, frightens them. And us.
The two strands of the novel--the codex and its rich human stories--are joined by another narrative, creating a kind of weird DNA. This third strand involves the Potter, who crafts the story. And the genes that craft us all.
Does the universe collapse? The Potter knows the answer. Noah, Kate discover it. We learn it too--on the last page.