December 24, 2007 - A Gift Suitable for All Ages
For the past several years, I've been reprinting what I've come to think of as "my holiday column" -- a tradition. I hope you enjoy it.
Some years after earning her Ph.D. in neuroanatomy, Jill Bolte Taylor woke up one morning and ... had a stroke. A congenital malformation of the blood vessels in her brain burst, flooding the left hemisphere. She was 37 years old, and home alone at her Boston apartment. She tells the whole story in her book, "My Stroke of Insight."
After a recent talk I gave in Illinois, a Trustee asked me to help her understand the role of the public library in the 21st century. I said I thought it boiled down to this: libraries build brains and community.
Building brains has two parts. First, and most important, is the total immersion in language that has been proven to develop thick clusters of dendrites in the brains of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Those clusters of nerves are the biological basis of intelligence.
I've been doing a lot of reading about brain development and literacy. The two are tightly connected. Children who hear lots of stories, demanding attention, empathy, comprehension of new words, prediction of events, are not only smarter, kinder, and more competent human beings, they are also prepped for one of the most wondrous accomplishments of humankind: learning to read.
When I was a kid (one of five), my parents could afford only one vacation a year: a car trip from north of Chicago to my mother's folks in Ohio. It was usually in the hottest month of the year.
The interstate highway program was still under development back then. For years, the trip took 10-12 hours, as we stuttered, stoplight by stoplight, on the two lane roads through Chicago, then Gary, Indiana (whose sky was always red, even at night), and across Indiana.
Eventually, with I-94 and I-80, the trip got whittled down to six hours, allowing no more than two potty breaks.
Imagine five kids in the back of a Ford four-door. No seat belts. Six hours. Pre-air-conditioning. Parents who smoked more or less constantly, interrupted only by the usual threats: "Don't make me stop this car! Do I have to come back there and separate you two?"
It's a wonder any of us survived.
I brought comic books and science fiction novels, because it didn't bother me to read in the car. But we usually had to fall back on dumb Interstate games -- finding a license from the farthest away state, looking for words on billboards, extra points for being the first to spot a VW bug, and so on.