On the Importance of Reading

“Monday Musings” for Monday January 16, 2014

Volume IV, No. 3/159

Azhar_1Avicenna

READING

It’s One Addiction that

Should be Encouraged in our Children

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

There is an interesting story about two Middle Eastern academic rivals who lived during the 10th century. One was Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna) (980–1037), the famous Persian physician, polymath, bibliovore, and author of the textbook, Cannons of Practice of Medicinewhich was taught in all European medical schools until the 1870’s.  Avicenna with his majestic intellect not sitting on a throne of ostentation but in the humble chair of a professor of Medicine in the world’s oldest university, Al-Azhar of Egypt, (founded in 990 AD), prided himself as being “just a teacher”.

As an aside, the oldest universities in Europe were established in France and were progenitors of today’s University of Paris, and University of Bologna in Italy. Other European universities such as the Sorbonne, Oxford and Cambridge were not established until 1200’s. The other “brain” was Ibn al-Nadim (967–1020), an obscure bookseller who lived in Baghdad most of his life. The story goes that Nadim wrote a 1,000-page masterpiece entitled Fihrist, which means catalog. In Fihrist , Nadim listed, in one volume, all the books known to man, including those written by Homer, Virgil, pre-Socratic philosophers, Islamic thinkers, Christian theologians and philosophers, and others. His book was the first attempt to produce an encyclopedia of knowledge, and it is reported that Nadim himself read and memorized all the books he listed in Fihrist. Rumor of Nadim’s intellectual feat reached Avicenna, who decided to visit Nadim. It is told that Avicenna took one look at Fihrist and, with his phenomenal speed-reading skills, devoured all 1,000 pages in just a few minutes. Avicenna, with his formidable photographic memory, then challenged Nadim to quiz him on the content. I guess this is a story that the speed-reading companies would love to recite.

There are many authentic references to Avicenna’s gift of leafing through any book of any size and reciting the content of every page by heart, verbatim—just as there are of Mozart listening to a piece of music once, memorizing and then playing it on his harpsichord. People like Avicenna and Nadim lived and breathed books. They were not only bibliophiles, but true bibliovores, an ambition I covet and have nurtured all my life.

Fast forward about a 1,000 years.The Argentinean linguist, poet, and writer, with the same formidable brain power to read and memorize books, Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) wrote extensively about the “art and science” of reading. I recommend two books by Borges: Ficciones (1944) and Aleph (1949). In these books, he ably lays out the solid conceptual architecture of imagination and gives birth to the literary genre of magical realism. Borges asserted that an adult’s inspiration to read books comes from the books he or she read in childhood and that childhood reading habits exert powerful, lifelong influence. Modern science offers compelling evidence that childhood reading highly influences the future of one’s reading habits.

Psycholinguists and neurobiologists have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), which demonstrate and measure the metabolic activities of the brain, and offer scientific evidence that reading from an early age helps one develop the association cortex in a more integrative and faster rate. That’s not even taking into consideration an individual’s intrinsic value and enjoyment of reading. Usually, I would say that addiction is not a desirable trait. But as a psychiatrist, I recommend addiction to three things: reading (becoming not only a bibliophile,but a bibliovore), opera, and classical music. The reason I recommend opera is that, along with theater and studies in history, it is a most cost-effective alternative to expensive and time- consuming psychoanalysis. Opera brings on stage the viewer’s prototypical “self” in naked form. Opera provides one with a continuous source of self-analysis, giving the viewer and listener delicious opportunities for growth, redemption, love, and wisdom. The same is true when enjoying the theater by geniuses such as Shakespeare and studying history. Expose your children and grandchildren to opera, theatre, classical music, history, and other art forms as much as possible. But first, expose them to reading and books. This should take priority over all else and should begin at a very early age.

An aside for our devoted etymologists and onomastics: Jorge, pronounced in Spanish as xorxe, is believed to be a descendent of the Indo-European word xerxes (Khashayarsha), which literally means majesty. It is also the name of the Persian emperor, Xerxes (519–425 BC), who preceded Cyrus the Great of the Persian(Achaemenid) Empire (576–530).  (We remember Cyrus the Great as the person who gave freedom to the Jews during Babylonian captivity.) There are many references in the Old Testament to Cyrus. One example is in Isaiah 45, where Cyrus is called “Messiah.” The names George, Jorge, and Georgia are all derived from the majestic route of the Persian name, Xerxes. So all of you Georges and Georginas—enjoy your connection to Persia and to royalty!

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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