Reading books and articles outside your field can spark new ideas in unexpected ways.

By Mark L. Winston

When I was growing up and beginning to read, I rationalized my broad and indiscriminate reading addiction by noting a public service advertisement for literacy that used to appear in newspapers and weekly magazines. The ad depicted an executive in a 50’s-style office interviewing candidates for a job, with the caption “Show me a man who reads,” implying that the well-read man (or today, person) would get the high-level job every time.

I recalled this when I began the first session of a recent university Introductory Biology class by asking the students “What was the last book you read, outside of a class text?” I was stunned. A few students proudly admitted to reading a popular novel, and even fewer admitted to reading a book about science, but the vast majority of students simply didn’t read. Anything. The class was packed with students aspiring to become professional biologists, yet only the occasional student had read a book exploring the issues they will have to deal with when they leave their academic cocoon and have to practice their craft in the real world.

This surprised me not only because I read, but because there are so many well-written, probing, provocative, and entertaining books, magazine articles, and newspaper pieces about science available today. Science writing has undergone a renaissance in recent years, and the range and quality of science-oriented prose is staggering.

Yet our students have little time or interest to explore the rich and abundant world of literary science, or reach beyond science into more general fiction and non-fiction writing that can further stimulate the mind and inform the intellect.

The usual reasons provided by education experts for students not reading include too much television and excessive time spent in cyberspace mindlessly surfing the web, but we professors contribute to the problem by focussing excessively on data-oriented, factual teaching.

We force science students to read and memorize dense, long, and expensive texts, and examine them on their capacity to regurgitate facts rather than their aptitude to dissect, analyze, and connect information. In grading, we favor the student who can spit back the complex details of a biochemical reaction over the student who can eloquently lobby for maintaining ecosystems rich in biodiversity.

If students won’t read out of sheer delight in the written word, perhaps we can motivate them to read out of self-interest. Scientific discoveries thrive by making previously unrealized connections, and serendipitous insights also are reading’s meat and potatoes. The pathway to new ideas meanders through different sectors of our brains, and the more diverse the path, the more innovative the breakthrough.

I think often of a student I know, a young woman who recently began to read, devouring everything from classical literature to junk novels in a bid to make up for lost non-reading time. She told me of a trick she learned from her boyfriend, who reads two or three books at a time to encourage his mind to make jumps that build bridges between topics.

And it works. I have another student for whom poetry resonates, and raw science is a struggle. Yet, he did a paper on the tough subject of xenotransplants, removing an organ from one species and transplanting it into another. He navigated into this subject through a magazine article that described the adventures experienced by a professor who ended up in possession of Einstein’s brain, secretly moving it around the United States and eventually delivering his clandestine cargo across the Canadian border to an expert in brain structure.

This student also was reading the old classic Battle of the Planet of the Apes, and for the final paper in the course wrote a long narrative poem describing a debate within an ape society concerning the ethics, techniques, and desirability of transplanting Einstein’s brain into one of the apes. His broad reading made a connection for him, and enabled him to feel his way into a science topic that he would not have been able to approach otherwise.

My own writing and thinking benefit tremendously from cross-reading. I recently wrote an article for the Vancouver Sun about eco-warriors who destroyed cloned trees at the University of British Columbia. I had read about this attack in the newspapers, but didn’t think much more of it until I was in the midst of reading For Your Eyes Alone, a book of letters written by the Canadian author and voracious reader Robertson Davies.

One of his letters stuck in my mind, because it concerned spirit worship, and reminded me of an earlier reading frenzy in which I plowed through a considerable amount of material focussing on how humans think about nature. I emerged from this nature-thought period years ago, yet the Davies book brought it back, and with it a perspective on deep ecology that led me to consider why the frustrated fringes of the environmental movement lash out in frenzied and destructive acts.

All science students would benefit by reading broadly to expand their horizons, and the most delightful aspect of expanded reading would be the unpredictable directions of their new intellectual growth. Imagine, for example, a biology course on biodiversity whose reading list included ten highly technical studies from scientific journals on the impact of biodiversity on ecosystem functions, five magazine articles exploring endangered species legislation and conservation, a popular science book on extinction (perhaps The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen), and two novels tangentially related to diversity and evolution issues, such as The Stand by Stephen King and Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel.

I’m confident that students in such a course would make their own intellectual breakthroughs, and come back for more reading. I’ll probably never get to teach this fantasy course, but I did hire two of my Introductory Biology students to do research in my laboratory, and they both read.

Mark Winston is a professor of biological sciences at Simon Fraser University. Reprinted by permission of the Vancouver Sun.

Copyright © Mark Winston, 2000. All rights reserved.

Mark L. Winston
Department of Biological Sciences
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C. V5A 1S6
Phone: 604 291 4459 FAX: 604 291 3496
email: winston@sfu.ca

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