12 Ways Reading Every Day Can Improve Your Life

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February’s theme is “For the Love of Books”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about our collective love of books – from finding books on a budget and downsizing a book collection, to honoring our libraries and independent bookstores and showcasing the best resources for book clubs.

The good news – perhaps the best news – is that books are alive and well, thank you very much. It doesn’t matter if you read books with an E-reader or the traditional print version, reading is more popular than ever. One wonders what any of us would do if we did not have books to read.

Much has been written about the benefits of reading, including scores of scientific evidence of its neurological and physiological benefits. Studies find that reading just 10 or 15 minutes a day can alter your brain’s functioning power.

A recent Lifehack article outlines some additional benefits to reading. Here’s how reading books can transform your life.

1. Reading stimulates the brain. Recent studies show that reading can slow the cognitive decline in dementia patients. The brain may not be a muscle in the traditional sense, but it can act like one in that it must be worked frequently to improve different cognitive functions, such as memory and math skills. The more you read, the stronger your brain becomes.

2. Reading expands knowledge. The more you read, the more you increase your knowledge of the world. Non-fiction helps you understand current events, science, technology, relationships and even your own pets. Meanwhile, reading fiction gives you insights into human behavior and motivation. Reading expands your view of the outside world.

3. Reading helps increase vocabulary and writing skills. As any professional writer can tell you, if you want to improve your writing and vocabulary, read a lot of books. Be aware of the writing styles too. As you read, it’s helpful to keep a dictionary handy in case you come across unfamiliar terms. Author Susan Reynolds in Psychology Today suggests firing up your writing brain by reading complex literary and non-fiction subjects, like science and art, which forces your brain to think more deeply, a skill that will help you become a better writer.

4. Reading is a form of relaxation and helps reduce stress. The most relaxing activity I know of is reading. Even reading for 15 minutes a day can slow down your heart rate and help you find your center again. Reading provides an escape from the pressures and problems of your day.

5. Reading increases tolerance for life’s uncertainties. A study cited in The Atlantic magazine finds that reading and writing can increase a person’s tolerance for uncertainty. Study participants who read short stories were less likely to need cognitive closure – to reach a conclusion quickly or were less likely to have an aversion to ambiguity and confusion. Reading teaches them that sometimes there are no clear cut solutions to problems and that not all stories end happily or at all. Fiction readers, especially those who were avid readers, were able to think more creatively and not get tied down to one idea.

6. Reading teaches empathy. An article in Real Simple magazine suggests that reading can help you understand a person’s emotions and motivations. By reading about different characters, whether fictional or true, readers can observe human behavior in action. When dealing with real life scenarios, they’re more likely to empathize with people going through difficulties.

7. Reading provides quality “Me Time.” Life can be stressful, and sometimes you want to get away from it all. But if you can’t take a vacation, immersing yourself in a good book is the next best thing. Think of it as a vacation for your mind. And because reading is a solo activity, it provides the quality “Me Time” most people crave.

8. Reading improves critical and analytical thinking skills. If you’ve ever read a spy thriller or a mystery novel and followed the clues to figure out “whodunit,” you’ve learned to use your analytical skills to solve the mystery on your own. Likewise, quietly observing plot development, character development, dialogue and story structure as you read along improves your thinking skills. But you don’t have to read just mysteries to achieve this. Non-fiction books can do the trick as well.

9. Reading helps improve focus and concentration. When you spend time alone with a book, the rest of the world just seems to fall away. When you read, you block out all outside distractions. It helps to turn off the TV and the radio too, which do little to build your brain’s cognitive function. The more complex the book, the more concentration and focus will be required.

10. Reading sets an example for kids. A friend of mine, who is an avid reader, once told me that she reads in front of her two young toddler sons so she can set an example for them. Studies back this up. Kids can develop an interest in reading early on simply by watching their parents read, or better yet, hearing their parents read out loud to them.

11. Reading can help you sleep better. Studies show that reading before bedtime can improve the quality of your sleep, as long as you read a printed book rather than an e-reader or tablet. The light from these devices can interfere with sleep. I’ve had nights when I lie awake at 4 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep. After reading for a half hour or so, I’m drowsy enough to get back to sleep.

12. Reading provides cheap entertainment. Reading is one of the cheapest forms of entertainment you can find. It doesn’t cost much to read a book (unless you purchased the book brand new). The only cost is the cost of the book, but even that can be minimized if you buy second-hand or borrow it. If you’re on a budget, reading is a low-cost option to entertaining yourself.

How Book Clubs Can Enhance Your Reading Experience

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Our February theme continues: “For the love of books”

Many years ago, I wandered into my favorite local bookstore called Transitions Bookplace & Café (which sadly, has since shut down) where they were hosting a book discussion meeting. I can’t recall what book they were discussing – something about mental health and relationships, I think – but the discussion drew nearly 50 people, far more than the store management anticipated. The group leader had difficulty keeping the conversation on track, and in fact, one particular man monopolized the conversation by talking about his own personal troubles. With so many people in the room, it was difficult to hear what individuals were saying. The group leader tried on several occasions to get the discussion back on track and to get more people involved in the conversation. Out of frustration, I finally left.

Other friends of mine have had more positive experiences with book groups. The key is to keep the group small, at least eight members and no more than 15, say experts, so it will be much easier to manage the discussion.

Starting a book discussion group can seem like a daunting task. Sometimes it’s better to simply join one. Whether you start a club or join one, think about all the different ways a book club can enrich your life and your reading experience. In addition to providing a means for socializing, a book discussion group enables you to:

* Learn about new authors.
Joining a book club opens up opportunities to read works from authors you may never have heard of. Or maybe you have heard of them but never read anything by them previously.

* Become familiar with different genres outside of your own interest. For example, if you don’t usually read nonfiction books, book club members may decide as a group to read two or three nonfiction books per year. As long as you’re open-minded about reading non-fiction, the experience can broaden your literary knowledge.

* Hear and discuss opinions and perspectives from other members. When you give everyone a chance to express their opinion, you learn to be more comfortable discussing complex and controversial subjects. Hopefully, you also learn to be more patient to give each member a chance to speak. You learn to listen, and though you may not agree with others’ opinions, you hopefully learn to respect their differences.

* Improve your capacity for literary analysis. When you’re part of a book club, you read books differently with an eye on discussion points. You might still enjoy the book, but you’re not reading just for pleasure anymore. You may also take notes while you read so you can prepare to discuss the book more thoroughly. It forces you to think more critically.

* Improve your ability to articulate ideas. Book discussion groups provide an outlet to test out ideas and formulate opinions. Book worms aren’t necessarily comfortable speaking their minds or sharing opinions. But with practice, more shy types can feel more confident in presenting their views in what they perceive to be a safer environment.

There are numerous sources online to help plan and participate in book discussion groups. Bookbrowse.com offers advice for starting a group, leading meetings and choosing books to read. The American Library Association offers tips for managing a book discussion group and provides some suggested questions in instances where there is no discussion guide. Also check out Bookmovement.com, which helps book clubs organize their book reading lists, maintain contact with their group members, and help clubs learn what other groups are reading. Reading Group Guides, a sister site to the Book Reporter, provides their own review guides for current releases which you can access by book title, author name or by genre.

With so many resources available and so many books to read, you’ll never run out of topics for discussion for your book group.

The key to a beneficial experience is to commit to the group experience. Going just for the food, drinks and socializing isn’t enough. Be on time, show up and stay engaged. Most important, be open to reading different authors and genres, participate in the discussions, and enjoy the camaraderie with friends over a shared love of books.

Readers: Are you involved with a book discussion group? What has been your experience?

Screenwriting: A Visual Form of Storytelling

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With the 2019 Academy Awards set to take place this Sunday night, I thought it would be interesting to look at two of its more overlooked categories – Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay – from the perspective of writing. An original screenplay is written completely from the writer’s imagination. It may be inspired by true events, but the screenplay is developed organically. There’s no other model that it borrows from.

An adapted screenplay, on the other hand, is recreated from another source, such as a play, a novel or a short story. Think of the Harry Potter book series, which was written by J.K. Rowling but was adapted to the big screen in a series of eight films. Adapted screenplays may even have been produced as a film previously, such as A Star Is Born. But excellence in screenplay writing is no guarantee of winning Best Picture honors. Last year’s Best Picture, The Shape of Water, did not win the Best Original Screenplay category, though it was nominated.

What I love most about these screenplay categories is that they honor the writers, the people who work diligently behind the scenes to create the dialogue, the setting, the action, and the characters in ways that can be visualized on the big screen. These awards may be largely overlooked by most of the public, but Hollywood insiders understand how vital they are to a film’s success. Audiences will never know who these people are, but the actors and directors holding Oscar in their arms will likely give a shout out to these folks, thanking them for writing a “brilliant script.”  Without a strong screenplay to start with, a movie director won’t have much of a story to tell. Conversely, no amount of directing or acting can save a poorly developed screenplay.

So how do screenplays differ from novels? What elements do they need to tell the story? What makes some of them Oscar-worthy, while others wind up in the trash bin?

According to Screencraft.org, a screenwriting consultancy, screenplays differ from novels in several different ways.

Screenplays have fewer pages than novels – A typical screenplay runs 100-120 pages while novels can be several hundred pages. That’s because the bulk of the screenplay is made up of dialogue and condensed action, whereas the novel provides much more detailed narrative and backstory.

Screenplays are dialogue-focused – Dialogue is the vehicle that drives the story’s action forward. Dialogue is used generously to reveal plot lines, conflict and character. In novels, dialogue and action are separate entities. In screenplays, dialogue IS the action.

Screenplays contain condensed action – With only 110 pages to work with, writers need to establish characters and setting within the first page or two. There isn’t time to delve into backstory. And they must do it using dialogue.

Screenplays place less emphasis on narrative – Novels have a ton of detail, much of it contained in backstory and narrative. However, screenplays don’t have that luxury. Viewers aren’t privy to a character’s thoughts as they might be if they are reading the book, so they have to experience the story through the characters’ actions and speech. The only exception to this might be the use of voice over which can help reveal the narrator’s perspective (a technique used in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper).

Screenplays are more genre-specific
– According to Screencraft.org, novels may overlap several genres. Harry Potter, for example, is often described as young adult, fantasy, coming of age and family-friendly, among other things. But a screenplay that attempts to do all of it may be deemed complicated and confusing by Hollywood types, not worthy of their time. Screenplays may achieve more success by sticking to one specific genre, such as romantic comedy OR suspense, but not both.

Screenplays may have fewer characters and subplots than novels
– Because of the condensed format, it may not be possible to include all the characters that are part of the original story into a screenplay. It’s common to combine two characters into one, or eliminate characters all together if they are not integral to the story.

When it comes to screenwriting, writers need to think creatively and economically. They have to tell their story succinctly, using dialogue as a vehicle to drive the action. They have to think about the economy of characters, and they have to think about the complexity of setting. A setting in one or two locales will be easier and less costly to produce than a story set in multiple locations.

With so much to consider, a screenwriter’s job is far more challenging than meets the eye. It makes you truly appreciate the nominated films in the screenplay categories – and the creative geniuses who brought them there.

Love to Read? Check Out These Book Review Websites

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February’s theme is “for the love of books.” 

Once you’ve finished reading one book, how do you decide what you will read next? For many readers, turning to online book review sites is the next best thing to getting a personal recommendation. These sites are especially appealing to those who prefer to read the latest releases. But it can be difficult to discern which of the newly published books are worthy of their time and money.

Book reviews – whether through an online review site or in a print publication – offers some perspective of what’s available. You’ll likely find two kinds of reviews: long-form reviews with a more thorough analysis of the book’s content written by a hired staff person or freelancer, and shorter reviews submitted by book fans, usually published on sites like Goodreads or Amazon.

There are more book review sites than ever before. The Internet and social media have made it possible to share opinions about the books we read more quickly and easily. I think this is in response to the growing number of newspapers and magazines that have downsized staffs and no longer have the resources to hire full-time book reviewers. Sites like Goodreads and BookRiot have successfully filled the void.

Book review sites have become a vital part of the publishing industry. Authors value them for providing an outlet to help them promote their books. My guess is that publishers like them too for a similar reason. These sites have created communities of readers from all parts of the world. They’re bringing the world together over a shared love of reading.

If you’re the type of reader who prefers to read the newest releases as soon as they come out, book review sites are the places to go to find out what is being published and by whom. If you’re the type of reader who likes being part of a reading community and likes learning about what other people are reading, book review sites can serve your needs well.

So what are the best places to go for book reviews? Here’s a rundown.

New York Publications — Most traditional book reviews are published by newspapers and magazines. The two that come to my mind are The New York Times and The New Yorker Page Turner section have extensive coverage of book reviews and literary criticism because, after all, New York City is where a good portion of the publishing action takes place. Most of these reviews are longer, more detailed pieces, so you can gain more thorough insight about new releases.

Goodreads — Several friends rave about Goodreads as the go-to source for everything-books. Read book reviews, keep track of books you want to read and find out what other people are reading. One of their highlights is their annual reading challenge. To participate, enter the number of books you plan to read in the coming year, then as you complete each one, update your tally to see your progress.

Kirkus Reviews – Launched in 1933, Kirkus Reviews is a book review magazine. Reviewing books is their forte, and they do it well. The magazine provides authoritative reviews of books weeks before they are released, and they offer a roundup of reviews for consumers in a weekly email that you can get delivered to your inbox. Kirkus also offers services to authors, such as marketing promotion and editing services.

Publishers Weekly – A publishing industry mainstay, Publishers Weekly covers industry news, author news, bestsellers, digital works and international. They also post publishing jobs and have a special section, BookLife, geared toward self-published authors.

Booklist Online – Geared toward librarians and libraries, Booklist is a publication of the American Library Association. But their Booklist Online site has reviews of adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. They offer advice to librarians about what newly published books should be added to their collections. But their reviews can be helpful to any avid reader.

IndieBound.org – Geared toward independent bookstores and publishers as well as fans of indie books, IndieBound.org does a great job of supporting this niche industry. In addition to summarizing the latest independently published works, the site has a search feature so you can find an independent bookstore near you. There is no online shop at IndieBound.org because their goal is to get more people shopping at the nearest independent bookstore.

The Book Reporter – Operated by book fans, The Book Reporter provides reviews and news of the latest releases, but also posts their own guides for reading discussion groups.

The Millions – The online literary magazine covering the arts, culture and books. The Millions showcases new releases every week on Tuesday, which it calls New Release Day.

Book Riot – In addition to sharing book reviews on the latest releases, Book Riot posts a weekly podcast, All the Books, which is a roundup of book recommendations.

Bookbub – Fans of e-books will appreciate the Bookbub site for its news and reviews of e-books.

I’m sure there are many more online book sites you can explore. Don’t forget your local bookstore staff who are usually in tuned to the latest industry news and can recommend new authors and newly published works. There’s usually a staff recommendations section to browse as well.

Despite the many sources around, I still believe the best recommendations come from the people you know, whether that’s a sibling, a friend or your hair stylist. You can never go wrong with a personal recommendation.

So what about you? Where do you go to read book reviews and learn about the newest releases?

Libraries: More Than Just a Place to Find Books

Several years ago, I wrote about how libraries have evolved since my childhood. For awhile, many people thought libraries were on the verge of extinction as Amazon dominated the book marketplace. But that may no longer be the case. Just as independent bookstores found ways to survive by offering products and services not offered by Amazon and national chains, the public library has extended its offerings beyond short-term book loans.

According to a recent article on Vox, the library’s main purpose is to help educate the community;  Amazon’s purpose is to simply sell books (and a million other things). The library still remains relevant today because it serves the public’s demand for information and resources, especially to underserved populations, at no cost.

With a focus on education and lifelong learning, the neighborhood public library has expanded its services beyond book loans. They’ve become multi-purpose destinations. And libraries are being re-designed to accommodate these expanded offerings.

If you haven’t visited a library lately, you may be surprised to find what’s available there. A Pew Internet survey from 2014 found that while many people think libraries continue to serve a useful purpose in their communities, a significant percentage did not realize the scope and depth of the services offered at libraries. For example, visitors can get income tax advice or job assistance. They can learn a new language, get literacy tutoring, participate in film discussions or research their family history.

Libraries house historic and genealogy records, map collections and other archival documents. For example, a library in Birmingham, Alabama, has preserved records and documents related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, according the Project for Public Spaces.

Public libraries also have community rooms, ideal for having discussions and debates about zoning changes and new proposed developments, all with the intent to help residents understand their community better.

Today’s libraries are trying to reach younger generations of readers by offering more programs aimed at teens and children. Some offer 3D printing, community access TV and radio stations, language labs and recording studio so they can record their own stories in their own words. Others encourage visitors to relax and linger over their reading materials by providing private reading nooks, creative spaces and even a fireplace.

These types of amenities aim to reach younger adults in their 20s and 30s, who have been largely absent in recent years but are the key to the library’s future viability.

As long as people have the desire to explore the world at large and engage in lifelong learning, and as long as there are family-friendly programs for people of all ages, the public library will continue to serve as a vital resource in our communities.

Why Independent Bookstores Still Matter

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Much has changed over the past few decades that has made an impact on the book publishing industry. New technologies have made it possible for new writers to self-publish, creating an influx of new authors and book titles that we didn’t see before. Online retailers have made it easier to shop for books from the comfort of your home or office so you don’t have to step inside a bookstore – ever.

But despite these changes, there’s still a place for independent bookstores. While many shops have shuttered its doors, many others are thriving. How are they doing it? By offering products and services that online retailers and national chains are not able to. By focusing on what they CAN do, rather than what they are not equipped to handle, today’s indie bookstores have managed to remain relevant while winning the hearts, minds and hard-earned dollars of their customers.

Independent bookstores may not have the name recognition of a national chain and they may not even offer coffee and free wi-fi, but they provide a sense of community that is lacking in larger chains and online stores. That’s what makes them still relevant today. That’s what makes them so appealing to bookstore customers.

So I’m giving our friendly neighborhood independent bookstores some loving this week. Here are a few reasons indie bookstores still matter:

* Independent bookstores serve as an anchor in the community. Many independent bookstores are managed by people who live near the community. They are your friends and neighbors. When you support these small shops, you support small businesses. Local bookstores are more involved in their communities that larger chains. They understand the importance of building community and sharing resources among their neighboring business. For example, they might work with the bakery across the street to brink in fresh-baked muffins and cupcakes for a book meeting.

They’re more likely to participate in fundraisers, street fairs and community events. And they serve as a popular meeting place for tour groups, reading clubs and kids’ groups. They may even provide a forum for a local political candidate running for office. With a strong connection to the community, they’re able to create a loyal customer base and build a steady stream of business from repeat customers.

* Indie bookstores provide stronger support for new literary voices. Indie bookstores especially appreciate local authors, and they will do whatever they can to support their book. They do more than just sell the book. They may profile new authors in their newsletter, or give them a forum to talk about their books. Since the indie bookstores aren’t always locked into big name authors and book titles, they can give new authors a more intimate stage to showcase their work.

* Independent bookstores can specialize in a particular genre. To thrive in today’s competitive environment, some indie bookstores are specializing to attract a specific type of reader. For example, Chicago-based Read It & Eat specializes in selling cookbooks and other food writing. The store has a kitchen for cooking demonstrations and hosts author and chef signings. By specializing in culinary interests, the store is able to create a unique shopping experience targeting the large customer base of home cooks in the area.

* Independent bookstores can help improve the local economy. According to IndieBound.org, an online community of local independent bookstores, for every $100 spent at an indie bookstore, approximately $52 is returned to the neighborhood, compared to less than $6 for national chains. The more money that’s put back into the community, the more that will cycle back to the bookstore in the form of repeat business from customers. That keeps a local community thriving.

* Independent bookstores are better for the environment. According to IndieBound.org, when you purchase books from an indie bookstore, there’s no need for boxes and packaging for shipping, and there’s no transportation needed for shipping. That not only saves the customer money for shipping costs, it means the boxes and shipping materials don’t end up in a landfill. That means a smaller carbon footprint for all of us.

In today’s marketplace, independent bookstores play an integral role in our communities and provide a strong support system for writers and readers alike. By providing a more diverse selection of works and more choices, readers can expand their literary knowledge and become acquainted with new book titles, authors and genres. And because they’re managed by your friends and neighbors, they provide more personalized, friendly service.

Celebrate small business and shop at indie bookstores. That’s the best way to show them some love.

Tips for Downsizing Your Reading Library

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February’s theme is “For the love of books.”

In my last post, I described ways that you can acquire books cheaply or for free. But a problem for many readers is managing the collections they have. How can you assimilate new acquisitions into your current collection while minimizing the clutter? What to do with all those new and used books you just purchased?

Let’s face it. It’s much easier to build a reading library than it is to dismantle it. You know it’s time to declutter your bookshelves when:

a) You still have not read books you purchased more than two years ago;
b) Books are falling off the shelf because there’s no more room for them;
c) There’s a thick layer of dust sitting on them;
d) You’ve already read many of them and you don’t plan to re-read them;
e) You have no idea what to do with them or how to get rid of the overflow.

Here’s an idea to maintain your library so that it doesn’t begin to overflow and get cluttered. This is especially helpful if you mix the books you’ve already read with ones you have yet to read.

Pull out all the books from your shelves. Sort them according to books you have yet to read and those you have already read. Assign one or two shelves for the books you have yet to read and place unread books there. Another shelf will be reserved for those you have already read.

With each book you complete, add it to the shelf with the books you’ve already read. When that shelf begins to get cluttered, it’s time to decide what to do with them.

It might be helpful to set up bins or baskets for donations, selling, swapping or keeping for future re-use. Just like you would with your clothes closet, go through the books you’ve read – and even the ones you haven’t read – and decide if it’s better to sell it (think garage sale), donate it to a local nonprofit thrift shop, or pass it along to a friend. Hopefully the “Keep for future re-read” basket will remain empty.

Take time to go through the unread books as well. Ask yourself: When did I purchase this book? Do I still plan to read it? If you purchased it more than two years ago, and you haven’t read it yet, chances are you may never get around to it. In that case, it may be time to get rid of it.

With a system like this in place, it’s easy to keep track of what you’ve read and what you have yet to read. It’s also easier to decide what to do with the ones you’ve already finished reading.

It can be a painful process to go through your book collection. They are like treasured friends. You want to keep them around all the time. But like having a household of friends, at some point, they have to move on to new homes. If you have difficulty letting go of your books, if you’ve become too attached to them, consider asking a friend to help you sort through them.

Once you know which books you want to depart with, think of where you can take them. Check your local public library to see if they have a donation program. Some libraries might still accept donations; others don’t anymore, like the Chicago Public Library. It couldn’t handle the overflow.

Also check with local non-profits in your area, such as Chicago Books to Women in Prison and similar groups, which use donated books to send to incarcerated women. Be sure to visit their website first to see what kinds of materials they will accept. For example, CBWP does not accept hard covers because they are not accepted at prison facilities. Make sure books you donate are in good condition and don’t have writing and underlining in them.

Consider trading books with friends and family members or contribute a few to your nearest Little Free Library. Also check local coffee shops. Some may have a community bookshelf for discarded books.

Finally, when your bookshelves are decluttered, set a parameter for yourself. For every book you acquire, get rid of one from your shelf. It will force you to be more mindful of how often you add to your collection. Then as you finish reading one book, put it on a separate shelf with other books you’ve already read. Once that shelf is filled, it’s time to declutter again.

It’s fun developing a reading library, but it’s as fun when they begin to collect dust or the shelves become so overloaded with unread books that you have to get rid of them. By having a few systems in place, downsizing your book collection will be less painful and you can manage your library more easily.