The many benefits of reading


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When I travel, I have certain rituals. One of them used to be stocking up on tabloid magazines to read during flights and layovers. They usually all had the same information about the same celebrity sightings and hijinks. Every once and a while I would read something truly shocking or learn something interesting. Mostly it was soda. You know, kinda tasty but empty calories. On one trip back home I went to the store to pick out my stack of fluff and I realized that they literally all had the same cover story. They even had the same picture, just from different angles. I was through. To be shown in such a literal fashion how I was wasting my time, money and brain cells killed that habit for me.

As a writer you would think I would read good books all the time. It's true. I am rarely without a book or two around me. I read all kinds of things. I try to read literature regularly. I also carry around trashy books. Bodice rippers, they call them. While the subject matter may vary across a wide spectrum there is a common quality that determines what I consider a book worth reading. Quality writing and storytelling.

This is especially true of my vacation books. I want something I can use to block out the regular world and just get lost in for a few hours. I want to get swept away in the drama and intrigue and the discovery of where the author is trying to take you.

I didn't stop paying attention to tabloid news. I check out the headlines while I wait in line to buy groceries. It confirms my decision to stop throwing away my hard earned money on something that not only doesn't add to my life but actively takes away from it. But I understand the draw of getting caught up in celebrity buzz and reality shows. It's fun. It's drama that only has the impact on your life that you let it have.

You are tempted because it is sold to you as real life. You are getting a peek behind the curtain of image a celebrity is supposed to maintain. You are seeing ordinary people live out their lives for your enjoyment. The only problem is that it stopped being reality a long time ago. Almost from the very first second.

Anthropologists have a theory about studying other cultures than their own. Some feel that the simple act of observing the culture changes it. It is why they have rules and systems to how they perform their job. We may have embarked upon our voyeuristic ways with an open naivete that made all this seem like a novel idea. It has become pretty clear that what started as a charming country road has turned into an eight-lane super highway of information. We thought we were going to be getting a true life glimpse inside the lives of interesting people. Some already famous and some made famous by what makes them interesting.

Yet, by studying it, we changed it. We not only looked, we made our observation known. We not only made it be known that we were looking, we monetized it. Once it became a money maker, it was compromised.

The same was said for mass produced books. When only a few had access to the information it was considered special and valuable. It was thought that by giving access to the masses would cheapen it and leave it open to corruption. It was true. For every masterpiece there was a debacle. As the written word spread, though, there came all these wonderful stories. Stories that had until then only been told. Stories that tied together communities that thought they were so isolated.

Not all "reality" television is a sham. There is much out there that goes a long way to show how we all have so much in common. It also shows how vast and complex and creative the human experience can be. At it's base, however, it is all carefully choreographed by the producers. Much like a good book is carefully edited to make sure the story is told properly.

During the holidays is a good time to find those quiet moments to unplug from the television and get your entertainment the old fashioned way. Love science fiction and action? Check out some Octavia Butler. Like superheroes and adventure? Check out Brian Jacques. Interested in love stories? Beverly Johnson is amazing. You like drama? Pearl Cleage will make your jaw drop.

Go to a thrift store and browse through their book section for entertainment on a budget. For five dollars you can get a bag full of books on almost any subject imaginable. Even better, why not give yourself a library card as your holiday gift.

Not only will you find yourself getting lost in concepts, ideas, lives and adventures when you read but you will see other benefits, like increased vocabulary and creative inspiration. Reading can give you access to worlds and information that can improve your life, entertain you and take you away from your everyday.

- Mariel Blake writes a weekly column for The Daily News

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