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Reading makes you smarter

Why do you read? Not just today’s newspaper articles or this particular column, but what makes you pick up a good novel, immerse yourself in a recently published memoir, or closely follow an essay on how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich?

One possible answer: “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,” said Joseph Addison, English poet, playwright and politician, who penned this quote roughly 300 years ago.

But more recent scientific studies suggest that reading does more than activate the psyche. It actually makes us measurably smarter, increasing blood flow and prompting connectivity in the brain. Stanford University researchers found that “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.”

As we age, our cognitive functions may experience disarray, and I delight in the idea that reading an interesting book can make me more well organized overall. The book ”The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Condo is a particularly good and slightly ironic example of that.

Reading introduces us to new ways of looking at the world. It encourages active problem solving. Lately I have found that if I am reading an engaging piece of fiction, I envision how it might end and am buoyed if I anticipate it accurately. Although, I have an even better feeling — a combination of incredulousness and respect for the author’s ingenuity — when the ending surprises me. ”The Giver of Stars” by JoJo Moyes is a wonderful example of historical fiction with a quite unpredictable ending.

Reading gives you more to talk about with others. If you read something on a topic that you agree with, it gives you additional conversational ammunition. If you discipline yourself to read something you feel oppositional about, you broaden your worldview, prompt self-examination and are better with the quick retort when you find yourself in a conversational debate.

This week I am reading “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. I am on page 74. Every page I read gives me greater appreciation of the book’s title.

Reading increases your knowledge of history, geography and culture, as one reader put it, “without an expensive plane trip.” If Italy is a place you yearn to know more about, “The Venice Sketchbook” by Rhys Bowen is my recommendation.

It might seem a bit of a stretch, but reading can also enhance your culinary skills and garner affirmation. My husband said “delicious” three times after I read about and then created the aforementioned “perfect grilled cheese sandwich.”

By the way, it involved toasting the bread on all sides in a well buttered pan before piling on different varieties of shredded cheese — lots of cheese — and then covering the pan for 10 seconds.

I am a reader. I like books by women authors and am partial to first-time writers with well researched storytelling skills. I like my books accompanied by a steaming cup of Linden tea while sitting in a chair that has an ottoman and access to good lighting.

The well regarded novelist William Styron wrote, “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end.” Indeed.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.