Wednesday 8 January 2014

Reading Boosts Your Brain? No Thanks.

People keep drawing my attention to the idea that books are in some way good for you. The latest is this Independent piece on how reading books "may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory." The suggestion being that reading fiction can "transport you into the body of the protagonist."

Two things, briefly: Firstly, if that's what happens when you merely read a novel, imagine what happens when you translate it. Translators spend several months inside the bodies of their protagonists – and pity the poor authors, who may spend years trapped in there. Maybe this explains why I like translating sex scenes so much, but also why translating books with profoundly gloomy protagonists may be less fun than chick-lit, for instance. We're suffering for our art.

And secondly but more importantly: Can we not just read novels because we enjoy it? Can we not do it without becoming better, more intelligent, more empathetic people? Must I always be giving my brain some kind of a workout? Can literature please be about pleasure rather than self-improvement in specific terms?

I may come back to these thoughts.



des von bladet said...

The point isn't that more people will read novels if they can be persuaded it is a painful duty; the point is that the people who already like to read novels welcome (present company excepted) excuses to feel even smugger about it than they already did.

RadiantFlux said...

I'm reading (German) so I can learn to speak the language. And it's the most enjoyable way I know of learning the language.

Actually it would be amazing if you could suggest on your blog some intermediate books by contemporay German authors - I just finished a translation of Dharma Bums by Kerouac and read Norwegian Wood by Murakami earlier this year. I don't want children's books, but once the sentence structure gets too hard I can't read. Unfortunately for German learners the advise is basically Harry Potter (or Hunger Games) and then everything else, which isn't actually too helpful. It's even better if the books are available in ebook format, as this allows use of a pop-up dictionary, which allows you to tackle books at a higher level.

BTW: I giggled (yes I am a child) when you mentioned enjoying translating sex scenes. Now I am wondering if they are harder to translate than some other sorts of passages. You wouldn't want to win the Bad Sex Award for Translation would you?

Harvey Morrell said...

RadiantFlux, do you enjoy mystery novels? There are a bunch of pretty good ones out there (I am partial to Friedrich Ani's series starring Tabor Süden). Given that you were able to get through Murakami, I would think you would be able to get through Maxim Biller; Doris Dörrie; Klaus Modick; Helene Hegemann; or Peter Handke.

Helen MacCormac said...

What is actually happening is that somewhere someone is putting readers on a level with people who knit or do gardening or like cooking./All those two-handed things that are officially good for you now) This isn't all that bad considering that scientists used to worry about female readers in serious danger of suffering uncontrolled orgasisms and other unwanted side-effects if they took a book to hand, even though they never worried about knitting.
One thing I do find interesting: We all make up our own reality, rake the net, talk to people. Some of us watch films, some of us listen to the news and some of us read books to glean information. I'm surprised the scientists missed that.

kjd said...

Des: But I already feel smug! Why would I need another excuse? Actually I think something being good for you is a bit of a turn-off.

Mr Flux: If you're in Germany, go straight to a bookshop you like the look of, but make sure it's small-ish and independently run. Do not pass go. Browse the books on display and see if anything takes your fancy. Then smile at the bookseller and ask her in German what she would recommend you read. Do her the favour of buying a hard copy, but you could also ask if the shop sells ebooks, as some do. I personally would recommend Tschick, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. It's easy but very good indeed, a coming-of-age road novel.

Secondly, sex scenes are harder to translate than some other scenes because you have to visualise exactly what's happening. Which is why they're also more fun.

Helen: I want scientists to worry about what I'm doing with my free time.

Unknown said...

Radinat Flux - I'd recommend Peter Stamm's books. I've always flown through them and become greatly overconfident about my German ability on finishing them :)