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March 6th, 2014

The importance of reading for pleasure and World Book Day

Shaun Lambert (author)

I was born in Kenya into a world that was real and not virtual, with no TV or computers or mobile phones. It meant we were outside playing most of the time. Oh, yes! And my mum taught me to read at the age of 3. Reading for pleasure is still one of the greatest thrills of my life.

This Thursday on World Book Day I am going into Wren Academy in North Finchley to do a book talk, a creative writing workshop, and three readings from my children’s and teenage fantasy novel, Flat Earth Unroofed – a tale of mind lore. World Book Day is committed to encouraging children and young people to read for pleasure.

The Institute of Education commissioned a study into the role of reading in 2013 and found that reading for pleasure makes a huge difference to children’s educational attainment. Children who read for pleasure are likely to do significantly better at school than their peers who read more rarely. This study was the first to look at how reading for pleasure affects cognitive development over time. It discovered that children who read for pleasure made better progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10 and 16 than those who rarely read.

There are different ways of reading. I learnt to lose myself in books. Reading for pleasure was what I learnt first. I learnt to speed-read, and I also learnt to read selectively for academic study. But the most rewarding form of reading, and perhaps the most important, is a form of reading for pleasure where we savour the text, where we read mindfully, practicing mindful reading.

Mindful reading is different. One way I learnt this, and am still learning, was through the slow, prayerful reading of sacred text that is lectio divina. This slow form of reading is repetitive, lovingly repetitive. It is meditative and contemplative.

I have also learnt a lot about reading mindfully. I was inspired to read in this way by Miriam Darlington’s lyrical Otter Country, where the author travelled the United Kingdom tracking wild otters. In fact, I take Otter Country with me whenever I lead a retreat, a listening day or a seminar, and I read sections to illustrate mindful reading and mindful attentiveness through observing the natural world.

As I read each day, I try to find a piece of writing that I can read slowly and mindfully; the very process of this type of reading can bring us into a place of awareness and attentiveness. This is not as easy as it sounds, mainly because we are trained to read in an aggressive way. I came across this quote about mindful, or contemplative, reading in a book called Teaching Mindfulness which explains this beautifully:

“Finally the weekly reading assignments are subverted through the introduction of a contemplative reading practice. Rather than aggressively reading to have knowledge and gain ‘truth,’ participants learn a method which is a being with, not a doing of the text – an embodied, not a cognitive encounter.” [1]

We are so used to reading aggressively as an act of doing of or to the text, we do not know how to be with the text, especially text that does not immediately surrender its meaning. Being with the text is a way of reading with pleasure.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) talks about learning to shift from the doing mode of mind to the being mode of mind. We are culturally conditioned in particular to inhabit the doing mode of mind. Our aggressive reading of texts reflects this. The shift to being happens through mindful awareness practices, meditative practices. One such practice, I believe, is mindful reading.

In Daniel Siegel’s book The Mindful Brain the author talks about the mindful awareness induced by poetry, creating what he calls ‘a receptive presence of mind.’[2] About ‘presence’ he says, ‘I mean quite specifically the state of receptive awareness of our open minds to whatever arises as it arises.’[3]

Daniel Siegel argues that such poems activate the streams of awareness within us.[4] Jesus did the same thing with mindful riddles – his parables. As poet Don Paterson says, poetry, lyrical writing is designed to shock us into moments of wakefulness.

In Flat Earth Unroofed I want people to feel thrilled, shocked, happy, sad, pleasure… and many other things. But above all I want to shift its readers into awareness and wakefulness – what it means to be fully alive.

[1] Donald McCown, Diane Reibel & Marc S. Micozzi, Teaching Mindfulness (Springer, 2011), p.160.

[2] Daniel J. Siegel, The Mindful Brain (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2007) p.161.

[3] Siegel, p.161.

[4] Siegel, p.162.

Flat Earth Unroofed – a tale of mind lore is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

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