The Burlington Friends of the Library group sells bags, and recently started selling t-shirts, with the phrase "Open A Book, Open Your Mind." That little phrase packs a lot of meaning.
Learning to read is the key that opens our minds to all aspects of future learning. As soon as we learn to read, we can spend a lifetime reading to learn. When we open a book, we step outside our own experiences and place in the world and visit new places, view the world through the eyes of others, and encounter new ideas. Reading opens our minds as we grow, learn, and make change throughout our lives.
Opening the Mind to Future Learning
Even when the pandemic closed library buildings, every library in our area immediately began reworking their summer reading programs. Summer reading is too important to cancel. It has been well established that summer reading programs help prevent summer slide, the loss of skills that results when children stop reading over the summer. Children can lose 2-3 months of reading skills in one summer, and those effects can accumulate. By the time a child reaches middle school without reading during the summers, they will have lost the equivalent of two years of learning. At the ninth grade level, up to two-thirds of a student’s achievement gap can be attributed to summer learning loss. Studies show third-graders who can’t read at grade level are four times less likely to graduate from high school than their peers. Not having a high school diploma limits job opportunities and lifetime earnings. The damage of summer slide starts early and has long reaching effects on a person’s adult life.
The good news is that all it takes is 2-3 hours of reading per week to prevent summer learning loss. Breaking that down further, reading only 20 minutes a day can maintain the skills needed to return to school ready to learn, instead of needing to relearn lost skills. Thanks to community sponsors, the public library, even in these strange times, is able to offer incentives and virtual events to give families tools to encourage daily reading and learning this summer. In this way, children in our community build a strong foundation of reading skills to serve them throughout their lives.
Opening the Mind to Calm
A study out of the University of Sussex found reading also can open the mind to a greater sense of calm. All it takes is a book you enjoy and a few minutes in order to bring down your stress. Six minutes of reading a day can reduce stress by as much as 68% by lowering the heart rate and easing the tension in your muscles. This study found reading was more relaxing than drinking a cup of tea, taking a walk, or listening to music. I say why not combine a few of these and read while drinking a cup of tea on your porch or listen to an audiobook while taking a walk through the park in order to really up the calming effects. In today’s world, we can use all the stress relief we can get.
With the pandemic putting our focus on staying healthy, it is important to note that stress weakens our immune system and increases the risk of developing heart disease and other physical illnesses. In fact, a study by the Yale University School of Public Health followed a group of people aged 50 and over for a 12-year period and studied their reading habits. The researchers found "reading books provided a 23-month survival advantage." The more a person reads, the greater that advantage is. The study reported that as little as 30 minutes of reading a day increases a person’s longevity when compared to nonreaders. A daily dose of reading may be just what we all need.
Opening the Mind to Change
While reading can comfort us, it can also challenge us. As important as it is to read for relaxation, it also is important to read as a way to expand our worldview and understanding of others. That can mean reading nonfiction titles about current events, the experiences of other people, or about life in other places. By stepping out of our comfort zone and challenging ourselves to read to grow and learn, we open our minds to change.
If a topic is challenging you to expand your understanding of the world, the library is a great place to start. Your local library has an extensive nonfiction section and can obtain books from other libraries to fit your learning needs. Your library team also creates book lists and displays to help you find resources. For example, you can find a display on race and racial equality at the library to help you expand your understanding of the current conversation about race in our nation by exploring current works and reading about the history of race and civil rights. If you are looking for ways to talk about race with a child in your life, you can find a list of age-appropriate books on our website or by asking at the service desk. The youth staff have developed book lists to help children with several sensitive topics, such as divorce, death, or bullying.
Opening our minds to new ideas and worldviews doesn’t only happen through nonfiction works. Talking about novelists, Lin Manuel-Miranda, the creator of the musical "Hamilton," said, "To engender empathy and create a world using only words is the closest thing we have to magic." Author Neil Gaiman, in an interview with The Guardian, said, "a book is a little empathy machine." He went on to say that a book "puts you inside someone else’s head. You see out of the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s very hard to hate people of a certain kind when you’ve just read a book by one of those people."
We can open our minds by seeking out and reading the works of authors with different life experiences than ours. The staff at your library can help you find new authors to explore. At the Burlington library, the Beyond the Book club focuses on titles by diverse authors and stories of varied cultures.
Reading a book is not a passive activity. Reading actively shapes our ability to learn, to cope in a stressful world, and to expand our worldview and make change in our life. "Read a Book, Open Your Mind" reminds us of the essential role reading plays in building a successful life and challenges us to continue to learn and grow personally so that we can be a stronger community together.
See you at the library!
Rhonda Frevert is director of the Burlington Public Library. Her column appears in Currents the third Friday of each month.