Book of the Week: The Art of Mindful Reading

12 May|Ella Berthoud

'Girl Reading', Charles Edward Perugini, ca. 1870

As The School of Life’s bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud has been prescribing for more than a decade. In her new book, she explains why we could all benefit from paying more attention to what, and how, we’re reading.

As a bibliotherapist, I embrace and rely on reading; it’s as important to me as food. My job involves looking at the entire person – their life, their tastes, their passions, desires, hopes, dreams and any issues they may have. I then prescribe the ideal books for them to read right now – according to what is happening in their lives at the moment, what new paths they might be taking or what major life events are happening to them. I aim to give the right books to the right people at the right time in their lives, and therefore I take reading as a pastime very seriously.

Children learn empathy, moral codes and social norms through the stories they are read as tots, then when they are old enough, the stories they read to themselves, and then the books they read as teens. Our understanding of the world is shaped throughout our lives by reading – newspapers, novels, biographies, non-fiction and online. As a bibliotherapist, I believe that every novel you read shapes the person that you are, speaking to you on a deep, unconscious level, and altering your very nature with the ideas that it shows you. With every novel you absorb, you live a life that is different to your own, and this affects you on a fundamental level. Reading mindfully, as I will show, can help you to reflect meaningfully on the texts that you read, whether they are fiction, newspapers, online journalism, poems or non-fiction.

The benefits of reading can be seen not just in terms of what you learn, but also of their impact on your mental health – even your physical health is affected by reading. A recent study has shown that readers of fiction live on average two years longer than non-readers. Yes! It’s true. Reading makes you live longer. When you read, your heart rate slows, your eyes ‘saccade’ across the page, back and forth, which is a movement that creates a stress-reducing meditative state in your brain. Studies have shown that when the brain is in a reading state, it is very similar to the state that the brain attains when practising meditation. You could say that reading effectively is mindfulness personified. I have developed various exercises that will help you to make your reading more mindful, which will be shown throughout this book.

If reading is your daily bread, then how best should it be consumed? And how should you read mindfully? Why will reading mindfully help you read better? That’s what I’m going to explore.

Mindfulness Exercise: Be Aware of Everything You Read

Reading is something that we do without noticing all the time, on our phones, on street signs and advertising hoardings, newsstands and magazines. Even the briefest of readings can be turned into a mindful exercise.

Next time you walk down a street, notice all the different moments when you read a word or collection of words. A walk from home to work will almost inevitably provide many reading moments. A shop sign, a bus timetable, posters at a train station, a glimpse into a newsagent with news headlines and magazine articles.

Make a mental note of each different type of written word you encounter on your walk:

How big is the writing?
What is the font like?
How does the word make you feel?
If it is big, golden and curvy, perhaps on a sign for a bakery, does it seem friendly and positive?
If it is a news headline consisting of a few snappy words, is it perhaps rather grim and depressing?
Think for a minute about how that word was actually created. Did someone stand up on a ladder and paint it onto a shop wall? Or did a sign maker create it somewhere else, using a computer, then put it in situ?
Was a newspaper headline printed in a local depot, then slapped up outside this newsagent in the early hours of the morning?
Perhaps you glimpse words on a board inside a café, listing what’s on the menu this morning. A waitress may have carefully used their best cursive script to write these words using chalk, or a chalk pen, perhaps having to re-write sections to make them fit beautifully onto the space available.

Pondering all these different ways of writing, the different approaches, methods of production and end results, is an interesting mindful exercise. It could be that you are in a foreign country, and the words and letters are alien to you. If so, dwell on the beauty of the foreign letters, seeing them purely as an abstract art form. Consider how these letters differ from our own, and whether they make any sense to you. See how shapes repeat themselves, and ponder how writing evolved into the state it now inhabits in this century. Cast your mind back to medieval times, when writing was mostly done by monks, in beautiful, huge books, ornately coloured and decorated over painstaking hours, weeks and years. Compare this labour to the instant ability we have now to make words on pages, using biros, pencils or keyboards that tap characters into existence in seconds.

Take this exercise to the next level by practising mindful writing. Before you start, place a piece of paper and a pencil near you. Now breathe in slowly and allow your mind to calm. Breathe out again and let all the stresses of the day, the distracting sounds, the niggling worries, roll away from you. Breathe in again, and this time, inhale with full awareness of your lungs filling up with air. Then release the air, and with it, release any preconceptions about how writing works. Pick up your pencil and write your own name. Write it first without thinking about the lettering. Then write it again, big and bold. Write it small and with very little pressure. Look at all these different ways of writing, and think for a moment about the incredible way that each letter represents a sound. As proficient readers, these letters are hotwired into our brains and we are unconscious of them as individual letters, reading them as whole words instead. Meditate on the way that writing has evolved over the millennia, from scratches on wood and stone, to chalk on slate, to writing in wax, to pen and ink, to print on paper, and to pixels on a screen. Where would we be without writing? It is as essential to our species as clothing.

Extract from The Art of Mindful Reading by Ella Berthoud (Leaping Hare Press, £10.99). Buy a copy here.

Ella will be offering free one to ones at the Idler Festival in July.