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Why Should You Read?
Your Key to Mental Fitness

Mrs. Underdunk the bookworm
Harley Hahn's World of Reading
Start here: Introduction
Why should you read? Your Key to Mental Fitness
Resources: Reading Resources on the Internet
Book reviews (fun to read): What is Harley Reading?
List of books reviewed...From Newest to Oldest
...Alphabetical by Title
...Alphabetical by Author
Training Your Mind

Everyone knows you must exercise regularly to maintain good health. Indeed, staying physically fit is a big part of our culture. We consider (and rightly so) that healthy people are attractive people. Since most of us want to be attractive, there is no shortage of exercise clubs, training videos, magazines, and books offering to help us stay physically fit.

Unfortunately, however, our culture does not place the same emphasis on mental fitness. Although we worship men and women with strong, healthy-looking bodies, we don't have the same degree of respect or attraction for smart, educated, mentally healthy people. This is a shame, because there are immense rewards for people who have developed the ability to think well.

If your mind is well-trained and flexible, you will be able to understand a great deal of what happens around you. And if you are also well educated — that is, if you understand basic science, mathematics, music, art, literature, history, and so on — you will find it much easier to make good decisions throughout your life. Over the long run, this leads to a sense of control over your destiny and a much better life than otherwise.

People who are poorly educated or who don't think well — that is, people who are not mentally fit — see things differently. Their world is controlled by mysterious, often malevolent forces. Such people live within a system they will never master, forced to follow rules they will never understand. Although it may not be obvious, most people spend their lives being manipulated by others. They are told what to do, what to think, how to spend their money, and what they should and should not aspire to in life.

In my opinion, if you want to live well, you must be able to use your mind well. For this reason, I want you to be able to concentrate, to solve problems, to understand complex ideas, and to think clearly and quickly. Such skills will make it easier for you to make informed decisions, understand current events, choose good friends, manage your money well, make wise long-term decisions, and appreciate music, art and literature,

The key to developing such skills is to enjoy learning, and to have the ability and motivation to teach yourself.

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Why Reading Is So Important

We all know that the best way to keep yourself physically fit is to exercise every day. Some days you do more; some days you do less. The important thing is to make physical fitness part of your daily routine.

What many people do not appreciate is that the same principle holds for mental fitness. If you want to be able to think well and to learn well, you must exercise your mind daily.

As with physical fitness, there are any number of activities you can do to keep in shape. However, over the long run, the very best way to exercise your mind is to form the habit of reading. Here is why.

Think of the difference between watching television and reading a book. Watching television is, essentially, a passive experience. You sit, you look, and you listen. Such concentration as you have is driven by outside stimulation. In fact, when you are caught up in a TV show (or even a commercial, for that matter), it is a lot more like being hypnotized than being aware and present with your thoughts.

Reading a book, on the other hand, requires active concentration. As you read, you must put in a great deal of effort to look at the words, figure out what they mean, and build up images, thoughts and opinions within your mind. Moreover, if you are reading and you stop concentrating, even for a second, everything stops. Nothing happens until you start concentrating again.

For this reason, reading regularly forces you to increase your powers of concentration, a skill whose value would be difficult to overpraise. Reading also requires you to develop your imagination and your critical thinking.

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Talking With the Great Writers

Aside from enhancing your mental skills, reading has another advantage, one that is less apparent but just as important.

There are many great men and women in the world, but in your lifetime you will meet very few of them. Through your reading, however, you can communicate with the greatest minds that have ever lived: the smartest scientists, the wisest philosophers, the best poets, and the most talented storytellers.

For example, four of my favorite storytellers are P.G. Wodehouse, Erle Stanley Gardner, Isaac Asimov and Arthur Conan Doyle. Since all of these writers are dead, there is no way they will be able to come to my house and tell me a bedtime story. However, whenever I want, I can pick up one of their books and read as much as I want.

Similarly, it is unlikely that Albert Einstein would visit me and take the time to explain the theory of relativity. (And even if he could, I would probably have trouble understanding his accent.) However, I have a small book that Einstein himself wrote, Relativity: The Special and General Theory, in which I can read the master's own words, and teach myself a bit about relativity at my own speed.

(By the way, don't be scared by the title of the book. If you understand basic math, you can understand special relativity. General relativity is a lot harder, though.)

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Different Types of Reading

I am sure, by now, you agree that reading is good for you. However, not all reading is equally productive.

In the same way that a daily 20-minute brisk run will keep you more fit than an occasional 2-minute walk, you can bless yourself with enormous, long-term benefits by reading books that stretch your skills, your imagination, your vocabulary and your powers of understanding.

We all know that some books are harder to read than others. If you try to read something that is too far beyond your ability, you will become frustrated and confused. However if you only read things that are easy — recreational reading, we might call it — you won't be able to increase your mental skills.

Recreational reading is important (and fun), but you need more. My suggestion is to develop a reading program that, day by day, will help you improve your mental capacity.

The secret of training your mind is to read books that are just a bit harder than you can manage comfortably. Over time, as your mind develops, your ability to read and to think will grow.

So I suggest that, every day, you make a point of spending at least 20 minutes reading something that challenges you. Choose a topic or story in which you have an interest, but make sure that it forces you to think. Over time, move deliberately from one book or article to another, making sure to choose new material that is just beyond your current level of comfort.

How do you tell if you are being challenged? Every now and then, as you read, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Am I encountering words I don't understand?
  • Am I forced to stop once in a while to think carefully about what I am reading?
  • Are there times when I must reread passages in order to understand them more clearly?

If the answers to these questions are no, you are not challenging yourself enough.

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A Plan to Improve Your Reading

It is my firm belief that human beings thrive on purposeful effort, and that mental effort is just as important as physical effort.

I read a lot and I learn a lot, and I am constantly thinking of new ideas. Over the years, I have been able to train my mind so that it works extremely well. This has allowed me to become successful in many different ways, and I would like the same for you.

So here is a simple, four-part plan you can use to help improve your reading skills:

1. Get a good, medium-sized dictionary.

The best dictionary for you is one that is large enough to have the information you need, but not so large that you can't handle it easily. A small, pocket-sized dictionary would be convenient, but it is not good enough for what you want.

I have a number of dictionaries. Two of them are large, unwieldy reference books: one modern and one very old (which is helpful when I read old books).

I also have a number of dictionaries devoted to specific subjects: mathematics, the arts, literature, medicine, computers, geography, slang, American usage, quotations, rhymes, and uncommon words; as well as a great many other reference books, including a comprehensive thesaurus.

Of all these reference books, however, my favorite is The Oxford Reference Dictionary, published by Oxford University Press. Years ago, when I was looking for a dictionary, it was the only one I could find that was large enough to have the words I didn't know, but small enough to sit next to me in bed as I read at night.

What about the free online dictionaries? I'll talk about them in detail on a related page:

Reading: Resources on the Internet

For now, I'll just say that the dictionaries you find on the Net aren't good enough for our purposes.

Although such dictionaries can be handy when you are reading online, for serious reading, you need to get yourself a good, print dictionary.

2. Get a small notepad and a pen to keep with you as you read.

Whenever you see a word you don't understand, write it down. If you have your dictionary with you, take a moment to look up the word right away. Otherwise, look it up later, whenever you get a chance.

Once you have learned about the word, cement it in your memory by using your notepad and composing a sentence in which you use the word. When it comes to new words, reading is not enough: to make a word your own, you must use it in your writing.

You will find that building your vocabulary will pay off more than you might think. In every profession, people with better vocabularies are more successful. This is because the more words you know, the more ideas you can understand; and the more you understand, the better you can express yourself.

3. Spend at least 20 minutes a day reading something new.

Start with something fun and easy — even a magazine will do — and day by day, work your way toward more challenging and valuable material. If you are not sure where to start, begin with the stories and essays on this Web site.

When you begin your reading program, there is one common mistake I want you to avoid. Simply reading is not enough. Over time, you must progress, and to do so you must have variety.

I have met people who, although they read a lot, get very little out of their reading, because they read only one or two types of books. For example, such a person may read only mystery stories, or biographies, or science fiction, or romance.

I encourage you to sample a wide variety of books, to embrace the unknown by making a habit of reading material that is completely foreign to your experience.

That's easy for me to say, but how can you find such a wide variety of reading material?

4. Get a library card.

Getting a library card is one of the best favors you can do for yourself, and you will be setting a good example for everyone in your life, including your children.

I use my local library a lot. In fact, right now, I have 19 books checked out. One of my favorite pastimes is to cruise the shelves, looking for new and exciting things to read. (In fact, I check out so many books, just to see what they are, that I am sure the local librarians wonder what I am doing.)

If you live in the United States, one valuable service of which you should be aware, is the interlibrary loan facility. Most people don't know it, but if you want a book that your local library doesn't have, they will help you get it. To do so, your library will find what you want in another library and request the book on your behalf. The book will then be sent to your local library, where you can check it out. There may be a small fee for this service, but it is worth it.

Every time I hear about a book that piques my interest — from a friend, or on the Net, or in another book — I search my local library. If the book is there, I'm in luck. Otherwise, I simply request it by interlibrary loan.

In fact, I use interlibrary loans so much that I know the people who run the service by their first names, Marie and Jackie, who are both wonderful. No matter what I want, one of them manages to find it for me. My guess is that your library has a Marie or a Jackie who will do the same for you.

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Getting Started

A few days ago (as I write this), I had an unusual experience. I met two very different people, within a few minutes of one another, who both loved reading.

The first meeting was related to the local newspaper. I live in a medium-sized town that has only one daily newspaper, which is of poor quality. To boost circulation, the publisher hires people to stand in public places and give away free copies of the paper.

As I was walking in a small shopping plaza, a young man called me over and offered me a free newspaper. I told him, no thanks, I don't read the local newspaper. (In fact, I rarely read any newspaper.)

He agreed with me that the local newspaper was pretty bad, but he had an interesting idea. He looked upon that particular newspaper as a "beginning" paper, one that inexperienced readers might start with. Later, as their reading skills improved, such people might progress to higher quality publications that were more challenging to read, such as the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

He then went on to talk enthusiastically about his love for books and reading.

A few minutes later, as I was walking away, an attractive woman with a young daughter approached me and asked if I practiced yoga. (My first thought was that when she saw how strong, good-looking, and healthy I was, she just naturally assumed I must do yoga. Later, I realized I was wearing a yoga T-shirt.)

I started to chat with the woman. She told me she lived on a boat, and she talked about herself a bit. She then asked what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer, which prompted her to tell me how much she enjoyed reading many different types of books.

In fact, just by listening to her, I could see — and this was also the case with the young man — that reading widely had sharpened her mind, and left her with a sense of confidence and the ability to think clearly and quickly.

It is this type of confidence and skill that I want to encourage you to develop.

As human beings, we are primarily problem-solving animals. As such, we structure our society and our organizations in such a way that the most valuable rewards go to the people who can solve problems well.

For this reason, the single best way to assure your success in life is by keeping your mind active and powerful. This requires a lifetime effort and learning how to think well is the most important part of that journey — a journey that begins with only nine words:

Turn off the TV and find something to read.