Anatomy tell us that average size of brain in a human body is 5.5 x 6.5 x 3.6 inches with memory as much as that of a super computer. This organ of the body houses ‘mind’ which is the space where life is lived. Mind is our consciousness, our thought process, memory and much more. The process of the brain becoming a mind begins with the initial perceptions and experiences since childhood. Yet it is not enough for human life. Another step needs to be taken to evolve mind into conscience which propels us to lead a moral, fair and just life.
What can catapult a conscious mind to conscientious human life is an obvious and spontaneous question. It might have several answers but for a good majority ‘Big Bang’ of this transformation comes from education, the act of reading and -Books. In the manner in which the observable universe came into existence by expanding into time and space, our reading also creates a universe for each one of us distinct and unique.
Reading gives an extension and expansion to our eyes. Books take us beyond our perceived arena down the ocean, on the top of the mountain and up in the sky. It opens up the unseen untrodden world sparking imagination enveloping the unknown and unknowable territories. Reading also helps brain to create more intellectual matter which facilitates communication within the network of the brain creating more space for memory and configuring newer ways of responses and thinking – Out of the Box. In a way it becomes a synonym of our personal growth.
While Non-Fiction Books strengthen and substantiate our understanding of the phenomena around us and also expand our horizon of knowledge, Fiction draws us into a circuit of inclusion and empathy. Fictional situations and characters excite the mirror neurons in our brain. Mirror neurons allow us to learn through others’ experiences as our own. Through fictional characters we become capable of vicarious suffering and pleasure. We can experience a life which is not our own but is lived in a different land and culture- in an untrackable time. In spite of the distances and differences they become ‘now and here’ for us. We empathise with them and stay away from being judgemental.
Some of such characters have not left me since their first appearance on the canvas of my mind. Heathcliff, the protagonist in Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ has generally been dismissed as a vicious character – a Byronic Hero. But a scrutiny of his person brings him closer to be a victim of societal discrimination. He in a way epitomises love and passion transcending all worldly views of good and evil.
Similarly, Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s ‘Scarlet Letter’ accused of adultery by a Puritanic society, is banished and is made to wear letter A all her life. Even in her punishment she would not let out the name of her beloved to save his reputation as a Pastor. To many of the readers like me she is an independent minded girl, firm in her commitment to her love.
Uncle Tom a character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is also a victim. A slave sold many times over because of the skin colour discrimination perpetuated by the white Masters wouldn’t betray his fellow slaves even in the face of death by flogging.
Another person who defied all tyranny and fear is Gabriela Rak from ‘Mila 18’ by Leon Uris. She dares to carry the child of a Jew, her lover, a victim in German occupied territory of Poland, where Jews are facing extermination. We judge these characters by their human dignity and undaunting spirit that they portray rather than by their irreverence to societal norms of their times and locale.
Reading Fiction/ Literature evokes a Flow State in the reader between brain and body – mind and soul totally immersing them in the other’s experience losing their identity in other character’s situation and emotion. This Flow State in the reader is brought about by the content to be read ‘Between the Covers- of Books’. It fills us with compassion, kindness and in a way humanity.
Books construct our individuality, tolerance to difference and diversity but at the same time beckons and prepares us for dissent even in adversity.
Dr. Rashmi Chaturvedi