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How reading can make you healthier and happier

Little girl and father are enjoying reading book together1 / 2
Dr. Susan Mathison, Catalyst Medical Center2 / 2

My son went back to school a few weeks ago, and his classroom is filled to the brim with books. One of his first tasks was to choose two books to put at his desk. When I pick him up, I'll ask about homework, and he'll retort, " I ALWAYS have homework, Mom. I always need to read books."

It's been fun to watch the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. His summer favorite was "National Geographic Kids Why?: Over 1,111 Answers to Everything," followed closely by "The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe." They had a great ratio of pictures and words. He enjoys sprinkling new facts in conversation with confidence. I think I've already lost the debate with him.

We also welcomed 15-year-old Thames from Thailand to our home this fall. The "h" is silent in both words. He loves sports, especially basketball. He drools whenever we drive by Shaquille O'Neal's billboards and wants to attend The Chamber's Voices of Vision lunch. I probably can't swing that, but lucky for Thames, Grant's cousin Michael is also a sportster and had given us stacks of books earlier this summer, including basketball, baseball and hockey novels. They are written at the perfect level for Thames to improve his English and align with his passion.

I loved to read as a kid, from novels to encyclopedias, but was scolded by both grandmothers for excessive reading. At night, I would sneak a flashlight under the covers to read and hear Grandma Agnes holler, "Quit reading in the dark! You're going to go blind!"

Grandma Daisy caught me reading in the backseat while on a California vacation and yelled, "Get your nose out of that book and look out the windows!" The palm trees paled in comparison to what I could "see" in my books. I was a rebel and kept reading. I now have a library with Tiffany Blue walls and white bookcases filled with books organized like the colors of the rainbow.

But why do so many of us lose that passion to keep reading? Life gets in the way, and we are so busy with work and kids and our phones. Some say that almost 40 percent of us never read another book after college. I hope that's not true but I must admit that I read far fewer books since I became a mom ... unless you count "Llama Llama in Red Pajama." But actually, we should count it, because reading to your child as they cuddle with you is such awesome parent-child bonding and passes on a love of reading to them.

Books can delight your mind, feed your spirit and inspire your creative side. Research shows that reading to kids as young as six months of age several times per week enhances vocabulary, improves intelligence scores and leads to better jobs. Studies also show that reading books for at least 30 minutes a day can lower stress and add years to your life. Empathy, emotional intelligence and cognitive resilience are enhanced. Books are superfood for your brain.

I am inspired by another surgeon who writes, Dr. Lee Warren. He served in the Iraq war and now practices neurosurgery in Wyoming. He and his wife have read one book per week for the past three years, and I've enjoyed their list of books.

I'm committed to reading at least one book per month, and listening to two or three more on audio while on the road. My son and I took a long weekend trip to Omaha and listened to the book "Wonder," about Auggie, a fifth-grade boy with a congenital facial syndrome that left him looking very different from other kids. It was fun to ditch electronics and let our minds create the scenes of the book. (And we'll be going to see the movie with Julia Roberts in November to see how the director brings the chapters to life.)

We are lucky to live in a community that is rich in resources. Our university and public libraries reach out to the community to share literacy. The Fargo Public Library had a small booth at the Red River Farmers Market downtown last Saturday and the staff brought 20-30 books to display. I was there with my son and Thames. We stopped at the booth, and I explained to our local library system to Thames as we perused the books. In this small collection of books, we found the perfect book: "Simple Thai Cooking." It was so perfect because it had the names of the dishes written in Thai and English. We were able to check it out, and I learned why he didn't like the brown rice I'd been making him thus far. Now we can cook something together and both understand the recipe.

Barnes and Noble is another resource. They do a great job supporting local authors and help with fundraisers for local non-profits. The large space includes thousands of books, journals and toys, and a special spot for kids Story Time.

We also have the loveliest independent bookstore on Broadway, Zandbroz. The décor is amazing, and they have curated a wonderful selection of books, including many by talented local authors. I picked up "Being at Home in the World: Cross Cultural Leadership Lessons to Guide Your Journey," by Laeticia Mizero Hellerud and "Hidden History of Fargo" by Danielle Teigen. These books are at the top of my current stack.

Read whenever and whatever you can. New language, new skills, new thoughts and a stronger brain — all because an author cared to share words with you.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at info@catalystmedicalcenter.com.

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