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The empathy of readers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A while back, there was a story about a possible benefit of reading fiction: Empathy. Researchers at the University of Buffalo measured more empathetic responses in 140 college students who read certain novels compared to those who didn't.

I was reminded of that story this week when readers started showing up in our lobby lugging bags and boxes of children's books.

They responded immediately, empathetically, to the announcement of the Gazette's Happy Valentine's Children's Book Drive.

Bring us your extra children's books, clean and in good shape, suitable for any age, we said. Our friends at Children's Home Society and Read Aloud West Virginia will help us distribute them to children who need books at home.

My phone rang all day.

I cleaned out a book sale, one man said. I'm coming to Charleston tomorrow. How do I get to your office?

First thing Wednesday the barrel started to fill. I saw "The Secret Garden" and "Call of the Wild," Brian Jacques and Rick Riordin, many brand new with the sale stickers still on them.

The call to help kids who lack the advantage of having books at home made immediate sense to readers.

It is easy to summarize in a news story the relatively academic benefits of reading to children and making sure they have interesting books to read themselves. Kids who listen to books and read for fun learn more words. They do better in school, make better grades, score better on tests and go further in school. Ultimately they have better job prospects, tend to have higher lifetime earnings and even enjoy better health.

But there are other benefits from reading that are less tangible and more difficult to articulate, at least until recently.

It's a cliché that readers say books take them places, and when they finish something they love, they want to share it.

But last summer, the London Daily Mail reported on researchers who appear to have measured the phenomenon. Researchers used MRI scans to watch brains of people reading. Reading is not a passive activity, they found. When readers imagine landscapes, sounds, smells and details on the page, areas of the brain that would process such experience in real life were activated, in a way not seen for TV and video games.

Different research found that people who like to lose themselves in imaginary worlds of novels benefit from those relationships much like people benefit from their real life communities. Reading for fun helps people lower stress

That's what I saw among readers this week who dropped by, called, emailed, facebooked and tweeted (#GazetteBookDrive btw.) They want to give educational advantages to kids, sure. But they also know a joy and want to share it.

A friend told me this week she planned to weed some lesser-used volumes from her son's shelf. Our UPS driver said something similar, our receptionist tells me. So did a Red Cross volunteer.

Kenneth "Woogie" Jarrell of Seth pulled up Thursday as promised. He had found a second book sale to empty out. We opened the door of his car and storybooks and picture books practically spilled out.

I thanked him, of course. It didn't take a brain scan to see what was going on.

"No matter how big you are, a man is never greater than when he stoops to help a child," Jarrell said.

The Happy Valentine's Book Drive continues through Feb. 14. Thank you, all.

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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