Why ‘shelfies,’ not selfies, are a better snapshot of who you are


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The books you read influence your life in deep and long-lasting ways

Reading has profound implications on long-term cognitive capabilities

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column by subscribing here.

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Whenever I enter someone’s home, I’m drawn to their bookshelves. It’s not a conscious effort; it’s just the part of a house I find most interesting. Seeing someone’s books offers a glimpse of who they are and what they value. It also makes for good ice-breaker conversation. Some people like to snoop through medicine cabinets, but that only gives you insight into a person’s physical well-being. The books tell a tale about the person’s mind.

This proclivity has paid off for me big-time. Before we started dating, my now-wife, Kate, developed what she called the bookshelf theory of dating. She had met someone at a party in her apartment a couple of years earlier who asked questions about her books, one in particular. That was telling, Kate told her friends; interest in her bookshelf was a quality she wanted in a partner. Years later, on one of our early dates, I brought up the same book, still on her shelf, and she cut me off. “It was you! You were the person who asked me about my books. I developed a whole theory of dating around you!”

Our fate must have been written.

Bookshelves have been surprisingly good for me, but they hold tangible benefits for everyone. You may not have a biography written about your life, but you have a personal bibliography. And many of the books you read influence your thoughts and life in often deeper and longer-lasting ways than film, television, music and other attention-grabbing pleasures.

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” Henry David Thoreau asked rhetorically, referring to nearly everyone. That was long before there were ubiquitous screens, but it’s still true.

Books as therapy

If a book can change your life, why leave that to serendipity? The trend toward bibliotherapy – a strategy of seeking books that aid you through difficult times and aspects of your life – is starting to catch on.

“Reading literature can increase a person’s happiness, decrease stress, and unlock the imagination,” is how BiblioRemedy describes the goals of its bibliotherapy, in which a specialist talks to you about about the issues you’re wrestling with and recommends books to help you sort them out.

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, bibliotherapists at London’s School of Life, have written – what else? – a book on the topic. In “The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies,” they show how Gabriel Garcia Marquez can help overcome a fear of death and Patricia Highsmith can cure lovesickness.

We’ve probably all been bibliotherapists at some point. When I meet young people in the midst of their searching-for-the-meaning-of-life stage, I recommend “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham. For those who’ve seen a thing or two, I’ve given “To Bless the Space Between Us,” John O’Donohue’s poems on the human experience. And for friends who have experienced true tragedy I have shared Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart,” in hopes it may offer them some guidance through their grief.

Books, and stories in particular, are probably the greatest source of wisdom after experience (as I argued on the TEDx stage, diving deep into the meaning of a single ancient Taoist parable). You aren’t just more knowledgeable the more you read, but you have more insight into life, love and the other big topics that matter most.

Reading as exercise

Even when we read for pleasure, we usually learn something (which you can rarely say of entertainment television). “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,” wrote the English politician and writer Joseph Addison.

Research backs this up. “Literacy propels the development of new, neuronal networks in the brain – particularly in specific forms of connectivity between visual and language regions. That, in turn, create the potential for increasingly complex thought,” explained Maryanne Wolf, author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain” and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.

The benefits of a lifetime of reading are exponential and have “profound implications for the development of a wide range of cognitive capabilities,” wrote researchers in the Journal of Direct Instruction. The 2001 s