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Reading a must to exercise the brain

I admit it. I don't read enough.

It's not that I don't want to. In fact, I am fully mindful of the need to exercise my brain with the same regularity as one should exercise the body.

But as with that kind of a workout, the time that has to be set apart to tend to the mind can fall through the cracks, behind necessary commitments such as work and taking care of the family, and then those guilty pleasures of binge-watching The Walking Dead or trying to get past level 10,035 in Candy Crush Soda.

Nonetheless, I nag myself to try and read a little of a book every day, in addition to the newspaper or the tons of distracting reading material that people are always sharing on social media.

There was a time when I didn't care whether or not I read. That was when I was in my 20s. I was busy with the business of finding a mate, so to speak. I don't think I read a lick in 10 years. Fortunately, the habit was there, merely dormant, having been cultivated in the formative years before boys, when I couldn't have imagined a greater pleasure than to read.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

It was my mother, more than anyone, who instilled the interest in me. A schoolteacher, she was a voracious reader who introduced me to the classics that she loved.

It was always a treat to go to the library with mum. She browsed the works of Leon Uris and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, while I devoted myself to my own weighty project of reading every book in the children's section from A to Z.

I was lucky to grow up in a time and place where we had no option for entertaining ourselves but to read. I still ache for those lazy afternoons, sleepy warm, when I would come home from school, discard part of my uniform and find a simple snack - usually a dab of Milo and condensed milk on a spoon - to fortify my plunge into a book.

I didn't know then that the ability to escape into an imagined world with utter abandon belongs to a child. It's hard for a grown-up to walk through the wardrobe into Narnia.

If I were growing up today, with all the temptations that surround children now, would I have discovered that secret garden? I can't say yes for sure and it is a sobering thought.

Fortunately, there is a window before the electronics take over.

As our mothers did for us, my husband and I read to our children from the day they were born. So did many other loving adults in their lives. The bedtime ritual was sacred, a wonderland of dreaming before the invasion of the Game Boys, Wii, iPads and iPhones.

One of our daughters indeed turned out to be a hungry reader, chomping her way through repurposed trees even more rapidly than I did. To my sadness, she disdained all the favourites I had hoped to share with her. But I think I would have been happy if she had found edification in a phone book.

Now she is 18, absorbed with schoolwork and other distractions. Nonetheless, I think she will be okay, for she informs me that she wishes she had time to read.

In recent years, what helped me to read regularly was being part of a couple of book clubs with my friends.

There are countless numbers of these informal clubs in the United States, mainly of women who meet regularly to discuss a book they have agreed to read. Part of the impetus is the excuse to ditch the husband and kids for a night out with your girlfriends, but that's not all. It's an admirable American trait to want to improve yourself.

Being in a book club guaranteed that I read at least one book a month. That might not sound like much, but consider that the majority of Singaporeans do not read even one book a year and perhaps there is something to the idea of getting book clubs started.

Now that my book clubs are on hiatus, I still feel the pressure to read from friends, who are often in the habit of asking me what I'm reading that they, too, would enjoy.

Peer pressure also turned our other daughter into a reader. That and school, which, besides parents and friends, is instrumental in cultivating a reading habit.

Some have argued that taking it as an examinable subject kills one's interest in literature, but that was not my experience. If any class in school came close to magic, for me, it was undeniably and always literature in English.

It is distressing to think that fewer and fewer children are choosing to study literary texts closely, for I don't know a more profound and immediate way to learn about the world, life and what it means to be human.

What I don't understand is why there is even a choice. Why is the study of a language not the study of the best texts written in that language?

That's how it is, in high schools in our state. Every child in high school must take Language Arts, where the focus is on reading and writing.

Fiction forms the bulk of the texts in the lower school, giving way to more non-fiction as students move up. For those who want to delve deeper into literary texts, there are advanced courses. But expectations are that the whole student body must read.

I agree it does not bode well for a population if more than half of it does not read regularly. Minds need exercise the same way bodies do to become healthy. But a reading habit does not spring up overnight and it flourishes best in an environment where books are frequently talked about and admired.

Schools can do a lot more to foster the habit. We've taken the first steps to loosen the stranglehold of grades. Without those as a stumbling block, why not make reading the cornerstone of every language class?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline 'Reading a must to exercise the brain'. Print Edition | Subscribe