The Benefits of Books

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I am a good reader, but no longer a voracious one. There was a time I could polish off a book in a day. Now, with many conflicting pressures, it’s more difficult to read at all. The research below, though, is convincing me to pick up another paperback tonight …

A 2014 study from Common Sense Media shows that kids read for fun less and less as they get older.  45% of 17-year-olds report they read by choice only once or twice a year. And according to a 2013 poll carried out by the Huffington Post, 41 percent of adult respondents had not read a fiction book in the past year; while 42 percent had not read a nonfiction book.

There was overlap in those numbers, but I find this shocking. Nearly half of all respondents have not picked up a book in the past year.

Why do I consider this a problem? Well, it’s partly selfish, isn’t it? As a writer, I obviously want more people reading!

Jokes aside, the primary reason this concerns me is that reading is fundamental – particularly to our mental health. And increasingly, research shows that it impacts our social health as well.

Consider first the stress relief benefits of reading. We’re coming out of the holiday season, and everyone could use a little less stress in their lives. According to research carried out by cognitive neurologist Dr. David Lewis, reading for as little as six minutes in silence reduced subjects’ stress levels by 68%. This was the greatest reduction he saw, compared to subjects listening to music, taking a walk, having a cup of tea, or playing video games. In fact, reading was the only activity which was found to reduce subjects’ heart rates below their starting levels.

Reading’s impact on our mental health is the most researched aspect. Researchers at Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy in Atlanta took brain scans of resting students, who were then asked to read sections of a novel over nine nights. The students’ brains were scanned each morning following the nightly reading assignment, and then again daily for five days after they had finished the book.

The scans revealed heightened connectivity within the students’ brains on the mornings following the assignments, and the changes persisted for the five days after the students had finished the novel. Both the areas of the brain associated with language comprehension and that associated with sensations and movement were enhanced.

Those subjects were university students, but they’re not the only ones who benefit from reading. New research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found elderly people who regularly read or play mentally challenging games are 2 ½ times less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. And the journal of Neurology found those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities (such as reading) experience a 32% slower memory decline compared to their peers.

But the most fascinating aspect to me is reading’s effect on our social health. Recent research published in the journal Science showed that reading literary works (though, interestingly, not popular fiction) cultivates a skill known as “theory of mind,” which NPR describes as the “ability to ‘read’ the thoughts and feelings of others.”

According to the researchers, familiarity with fiction, self-reported empathy, and performance on an advanced affective Theory of Mind test have been correlated. Fiction seems also to expand our knowledge of others’ lives, helping us recognize our similarity to them. In fact, fiction may change how, not just what, people think about others. Researchers went on to submit that fiction affects Theory of Mind processes because it forces readers to engage in mind-reading and character construction, thus increasing our capabilities for empathy.

So let’s review: The simple act of reading can reduce your stress, grow your mind, halt mental decline, and increase your ability to identify with the people around you.

That’s why I want to encourage you to visit your local library this week – and get back to the fundamentals.

Naturally, I recommend starting with any of the fine books from Apocalypse Ink Productions.

(Adapted from a December speech.)

Music of the Fears – January 2015

Scholar and gentleman Michael Grasso of the Renfusa blog pointed me to this article on teaching yourself creativity.

It’s an interesting read – an article I’ll likely mine for more blog posts in the future on topics such as the role of personality in creativity, my collection of self-help books on how to engage the creative mind, and the impact of a positive outlook on your own creativity.

Today, I’ll start with this quote:

“Most creative people have figured out a way to do the incubation thing—whether it’s meditation or staring out the window or taking long walks so their ideas can percolate,” Jung says. “It’s finding that magic space where you’re not actively engaged with the external world, and not just surfing the Internet.”

That kind of woolgathering was once my stock in trade. My bread and pickles. The trait that’s annoyed more of my teachers and romantic interests than anything else.

The arrival of the internet has made it both more difficult and simpler. More difficult, because left to my own devices, I’ll surf Pinterest and Reddit for hours at a time; and nothing kills my creativity faster than that aimless browsing.

Simpler, because I have four primary means of incubating: Meditation, Exercise, Driving … and Music.

Of course, one of the things the internet does really, really well is introduce me to music I would never have found in my local record stores or on the radio.

My alpha readers for FAMISHED: THE RANCH are getting notes on what music I listened to while writing various chapters. Since it’s a Friday before a long weekend, I decided it would be a friendly gesture to point others in the same direction.

When I’m not writing, my tastes trend to ska and hard rock. When writing, though, other people’s words get in the way. As a result, most of what I use to get into the incubating stage is ambient, electronic, or in a foreign language.

Most importantly – if you love the track, buy it! If you love the artist, let them know! Musicians, writers, and all other creatives need your support.

How about you? If music helps you get into the mood, share the love in a comment below.

Words, Words, Words

“You need to blog more.”

Not unexpected advice. In fact, Apocalypse Ink Productions is historically very polite about my preference for silly tweets over effective updates. Still, there is an understanding that I ought to be more available.

As such, I’ve adapted the below from a speech I wrote, introducing myself to a public speaking club. Your first speech is designed as an icebreaker, to let people know more about yourself. I figure that’s a decent way to get back into the habit of talking …

I love words.

I’m the author of two novels, and my short stories are featured in several anthologies. My poetry appears in national magazines. Writing is one of my great passions.

I’m also an experienced actor. I perform in one-man shows and in ensembles – once, even before the entire congregation of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

So why is talking about myself so damned difficult?

Because the very things I enjoy have trained me to conceal myself.

When writing, the author’s voice must be recognizable but not flashy. A great writer is one who turns a phrase which nobody else could write, but who slips that phrase into a flow of conversation. Only Stephen King could write, “Some birds are not meant to be caged, that’s all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild.” And yet it sounds like a homily we’ve heard at our grandfather’s knee.

When I write, some accuse me of being much too in love with the beauty of language. I’m fond of men like James Joyce and Walt Kelley, poetic Irishmen whose words carry us away. Men who turn phrases like, “All Moanday, Tearday, Wailsday, Thumpsday, Frightday, Shatterday.” Or, “We is confronted with insurmountable opportunities.”

So when writing, I work to hide that playfulness with my run-ons, and synonyms, and rhythms. To conceal my true voice.

When performing, there is no greater triumph than to be utterly submerged within your role. A young Leonardo diCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. And the feeling? Oh, that feeling. When the moment carries you away, and even though you’re speaking lines you’ve spoken a thousand times before – it’s sublime. Indescribable.

It’s someone else’s voice.

But still. There are people in the world who manage to combine those skills of writing and performance into a very real, very personal triumph. The kind of people that I want to emulate.

Spaulding Grey. Garrison Keillor. David Sedaris. Mike Daisey.

These are the new storytellers. The modern masters.

They are speakers and monologists. Men who come onto a stage and speak to you, not as a character, but from their authentic selves. Sharing their life experience, their philosophy, their outrage. People who share their truth, even as they spin beautiful words together.

Though sometimes … they still can make it up.

In the first drafts of this piece, I found myself lapsing back into an old, bad habit – making up things about myself. As Jackie O’Shea says in the wonderful Irish film, Waking Ned Devine, “I’m not a great man for telling things the way they are.” But great writers, great speakers, don’t need to stretch the truth to keep an audience entertained. They need the truth of their voice, of their passion. Their training.

I do this to learn. I do this to grow. I do this to understand how better to communicate, not from behind the smoke and mirrors of language or buried in another man’s words – but to share myself with a brighter, broader stage.

Character Blog Tour

I was tagged by Jennifer Brozek to engage in a Character Blog Tour. Since I’ve just received a verbal acceptance from her on the initial outline for Famished: The Ranch, I thought this would be a good place to introduce new readers to our hero.

  1. What is the name of your character?
    Gordon Velander.
  2. Is s/he fictional or a historic person?
    Gordon is totally fictional.
  3. When and where is the story set?
    It is set in a modern day alternate America. While the world is essentially the same as the one we know, supernatural elements and creatures exist. Also, the founding of America went a little differently here, though the general public is unaware of this fact. The story ranges from Colorado to Maine, from Minnesota to South Carolina.
  4. What should we know about him/her?
    At the start of the series, Gordon is an aimless teacher’s aide with little further direction than a Christmas Catholicism and a desire to work in higher education. He’s honest, faithful, sheltered, and more than a little naïve – almost childlike in his faith in the inherent goodness of people. This is, naturally, Not A Good Thing for a horror protagonist.
  5. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
    He is the unwitting scion of a horrific cult with its roots deep in the history and difficulties of the United States. When the cult discovers his bloodline, they introduce him to a world he was never prepared to witness, and demand his obedience to their terrifying agenda. Just when he thinks himself free of their reach, he becomes the tool of another supernatural force, a catspaw to carry out their own desires.
  6. What is the character’s personal goal?
    While the goal has shifted slightly in each of the novels in this series, his ultimate goal is freedom – freedom from the cult, from the forces which sustain him, and the past built by his ancestors.
  7. Is there a working title for this novel, and where can we read more about it?
    The latest (and likely final) book in the Gentleman Ghouls series is Famished: The Ranch. It is preceded by Famished: The Farm and Famished: The Commons. The earlier books are available from the publisher’s website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Drive Thru Fiction.
  8. When can we expect the book to be published?
    The first two books are already available. I am personally hopeful to release Famished: The Ranch in the summer of 2015, but have not yet confirmed any dates with the publisher.

I’m going to tag Anastasia Storer, Erica Lira and Ginger Breo. They may, of course, choose to play or ignore this blog tour.

The Human Cost of Early Adoption

This past Monday, Apple hit a world record. Preorders of its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus came to over four million in the first 24 hours. That is twice the number of preorders placed for the iPhone 5 in 2012. It is the largest launch day success of all time. Truly, a remarkable achievement for any company in financial terms!

But are financial terms the only terms worth measuring?

In May of 2011, the New York Times reported the explosion of an iPad factory in China due to lax safety measures – killing several workers and severely injuring others. Despite Apple’s assurances that such a thing would never happen again, a second factory exploded in December, a mere seven months later. In this second event, several more workers were severely injured.

According to an NPR investigation, that second site was the subject of an official safety inspection by Apple mere hours before the explosion. An inspection which clearly failed to identify some serious concerns.

Pegatron, the factory’s owner, blamed dust for this explosion. And the testimony seemed to bear this out – He Wenwen, one of the workers injured, states that the air in the Pegatron factory often resembled fog due to the heavy buildup of dust, that their venting technology routinely failed, and that the factory windows had actually been sealed shut.

Apple insists that these workers were compensated for their trouble. The workers indicated that this was true – though only after the media had pressured Apple repeatedly to ask for comment. Each worker reported receiving the equivalent of $800 American.

This is where I have to point out that the starting price of an iPhone 6 is $650.

And, according to the World Health Organization, the median daily cost of a hospital stay in a Chinese facility comes to $65.

Which means that if you’ve contracted to be one of those four million early adopters? Congratulations. You’ve helped cover ten days of treatment for a single injured worker, some of whom who were still receiving treatment a full ninety days after their injuries.

Why are the safety standards at these factories so lax?

One basic answer is the relationship between ourselves and our phones. Our desire to lay hands on these devices – as soon as they are released, and at a minimal cost to us – means that Apple, and other electronics manufacturers selling to the North American market, push their suppliers to turn around vast quantities of product with little advance notice and at the lowest of costs.

On top of which, the New York Times reports that Apple forces each supplier to trim their costs by 10% every year. All in the name of providing us with the newest, shiniest toys the moment they arrive.

I ask again: are financial terms truly the only terms worth measuring?

And I also ask, how can we change this? How can we, as individuals, effect positive global change? The most basic and sensible answer is this: We can “think different” about our upgrades. We can ask ourselves, do our current devices truly no longer function? Do they no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended – placing phone calls, keeping our calendars straight, taking photos? Do we, in fact, truly need this latest, greatest thing?

By opting out of the current voracious consumer cycle and opting for a more sensible pace of upgrades, we relieve some of the pressure put onto the suppliers. And by publicly sharing the reason behind these decisions, we put more pressure onto the companies who are squeezing those suppliers to change their practices.

Now – lest you think of this speech as nothing more than a self-righteous lecture– allow me a moment.

I am the owner of two iPhones. The white one is used for work, which allows me to set specific do not disturb or vacation hours. The black one is strictly for personal use, which allows me to store music and games without concern for company policies on data use. Because I find this convenient. My hands are far from lily-white.

But I purchased both phones before I knew the facts. And once I knew those facts, I knew I had to share them with others.

I will not be replacing one of these phones.

And even speaking as a worker in the technology field, I will never again be in the front lines as an early adopter. Because when we ignore the human cost of these devices, we ignore our own humanity. I know that now.

And so, I hope, do you.

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