World Book Day: where could books lead you?

As we celebrate World Book Day on 7th March, we look at how books, stories and reading have influenced the researchers we work with.

Books that open up the world

“At school, I loved English literature because books had the power to transport me to other societies and cultures and allowed me to travel in my mind,” says Professor Anna Smallwood, highlighting the enduring power of stories to fuel the imagination. Anna’s childhood love of reading inspired a desire to travel the world. So, she got a job as cabin crew which allowed her to achieve her dream. She then progressed to managing the aircraft fleets and operations of commercial airlines, and now leads the Centre for Air Transport Management at Cranfield University, UK.

Books that spark an interest

Books read in childhood can have a powerful impact on someone’s later life by helping to shape their interests and goals. “In sixth grade, I read a book called Hitler: The Pathology of Evil, which interested me in the criminally insane,” says Jordan Windley, a student at Virginia State University, USA. “I wanted a deeper understanding of what could drive evil behaviours, so I set my sights on becoming a forensic psychologist, hoping to criminally profile someone someday.” This book led Jordan to study psychology, where she is participating in a research project to help students develop the skills they need to succeed at school.

Stories that engage people with heritage

“Literature has the potential to change lives, and those who teach it occupy a privileged position of responsibility and influence,” says Professor Dale Townshend. “My greatest sources of inspiration have been the mentors who have taught me English literature over the years, from primary school through to postgraduate university research. I am still inspired by my past tutors who taught me how to love and appreciate all forms of literary expression.” Today, Dale is a Professor of Gothic Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, where he is exploring how medieval Gothic architecture inspired Georgian and Victorian Gothic literature. Dale and his colleague, Dr Michael Carter, a historian at English Heritage, are using ghost stories to engage people with English history and heritage. 

Reading challenges that inspire research

“I aspire to help make life easier for adults with reading challenges,” says Professor Jacqueline Cummine, who studies communication disorders at the University of Alberta, Canada. Her own challenges with reading inspired her to studying the neuroscience behind literacy: “I have had personal struggles with reading new and complex words, and have suffered hearing loss,” Jacqueline explains. “For many years, I hid both these challenges and was embarrassed about their consequences in social scenarios, such as not knowing or mishearing the words that people used. But now, I embrace how my experiences with these struggles have provided me with novel insights into potential underlying mechanisms and strategies for overcoming these challenges.”

As Jacqueline has found, while reading is a great joy for many people, it can also be a challenge. “When I read A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, I found myself unable to retain much information about the story because so many characters had bizarre and unique names – Zaphod Beeblebrox, for instance,” says Jacqueline. “Because I couldn’t ‘say’ the names, it was like I was ‘seeing’ them for the first time every time they appeared in the book, which disrupted my ability to comprehend the story. This experience has informed my research that explores reading comprehension and reading fluency for individuals with reading impairments.”

The power of poetry

A love of literature can spark a range of literary based careers that involve both reading and writing. Professor Will May is a literature researcher at the University of Southampton, UK, where he has established a mentoring scheme to support young poets. “I did my PhD on the extraordinary British poet Stevie Smith, and I adore her writing,” he says. “I love the way she stubbornly makes room for all the feelings and encounters of everyday life we didn’t realise we could make into poems: frogs, hedges, newspaper clippings, rainy parks. Her scratchy drawings and strange half-sung performances really expanded my sense of what a poem could be, as well as what it could be about.”

Will works with poets such as Romalyn Ante, a nurse who enjoys writing poetry in her spare time. “My writing focuses on nursing, especially migrant nurses, as I come from a community of migrant Filipino nurses,” she explains. “I wanted to shed light on the narrative of migrants, and I’m lucky that I wanted to write about something that is already deeply embedded in my own person. I’m proud of the publication of my first poetry book, Antiemetic for Homesickness, as it allows readers to come to poetry. I have readers who are doctors, nurses, carers. I have readers who are migrants themselves. I think that’s what poetry should be about – poetry should open doors wider. I’m really proud that my work speaks with different readers from different backgrounds.”

Through Will’s mentoring scheme, Romalyn is mentoring aspiring poet, Eve Wright. “I’m a strong believer that you can make poetry out of anything,” says Eve. “Oftentimes, my poetry inspiration comes from me reading into innocuous, or not so innocuous, events or things and trying to juice the poetry out of them.” Eve’s dream is to one day publish a poetry collection with their name on it. “As an autistic person, I often believed I would never be as worthy of a place in the writing world as my neurotypical counterparts,” they explain. “If I can make just one person feel capable of writing, it would mean the world to me.”

Fantasy and philosophy

“When I was younger, I liked any book that had talking animals,” says Dr Jennifer Mensch, a philosopher at Western Sydney University, Australia. “I loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis because I loved the idea of going through the back of a wardrobe and ending up in a different world and having lots of cool talking animals to go on adventures with.” Jennifer’s colleague, Dr Michael Olson, a philosopher at Marquette University, USA, had similar tastes: “My favourite book when I was a kid, Redwall by Brian Jacques, is also about talking animals. It’s a fantasy of sorts, the main character is a mouse. What I like about it is that this small mouse found its way into a world that didn’t fully make sense, and then through the mystery of the plot you manage to put the pieces together. It strikes a chord with me that people are trying to figure out how to put the pieces together in their life and then when you eventually manage to put them together in a way that makes sense, even if it’s not entirely what you expected, it’s a deeply satisfying process. I guess this has something to do with the fact that I ended up doing what I do.”

Michael and Jennifer study how historical ideas of science and philosophy have led to modern ideas about race. They are keen to emphasise the importance of philosophy in the modern world and have plenty of advice for budding philosophers: “To study philosophy, it’s important to be open-minded and a patient reader,” says Michael. So, if you are interested in philosophy, get reading! “There are plenty of literary philosophers out there,” says Jennifer, who recommends the plays and short stories written by Jean-Paul Sartre and the works of other ‘existentialist’ writers such as Dostoevsky, Camus and Kafka. “Even works of science fiction, from authors such as Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin, have really valuable philosophical insights that help stretch our minds.”

Where could books lead you?

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