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Nancy Okerlund
Volume 3, Issue 1, 01/08/09

Bathtub Reading

I started out the new year in the bathtub, reading a magazine article about fungi. It was long, an interview of Paul Stamets, a fungi expert, about his book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. I read the whole thing in one sitting (so to speak :-).

It made me very happy. For one thing, the article is well written. For another, I'm now fascinated with the subject of fungi and impressed with Stamets' expertise and commitment. And think he's probably right: mushrooms can help save the world. (Especially if Stamets keeps helping the mushrooms.)

Last but not least, I read the whole thing all at once – it felt like a small miracle.

I've been wanting to read this article for eleven months. I know that because the magazine (The Sun) arrived last February. The Sun always has an interview and I read most of them.

Usually these interviews wait patiently for a couple months before I get around to them. And I almost never give myself the luxury of reading the whole article at once.

But this one waited the longest (so far.) In fact, I think my bath on New Year's morning was a spontaneous now-or-never, because I've almost recycled this issue of The Sun several times.

New Year's morning it either caught my eye or came into my mind – I don't remember which – and I seized the moment. I told myself it was a holiday, bypassed my usual process of figuring out what to read, and climbed into the tub with it.

What took me so long? And why did I like it so much when I finally read it? It's not hard for me to find "introvert" reasons.

Introverts tend to be studious – our minds feel really alert when we're learning and thinking and wondering about things. We like depth and we're good at concentrating, when we're interested in something.

But we can get over-stimulated and drained – brain overload. Being interrupted is unpleasant for us and getting our concentration back can take a lot of energy.

It takes time to think and ponder. And time to get our brains out of overload when the neurotransmitters get depleted.

And even after we've learned a lot about something, chances are we'll feel like there's still so much more to know and think about.

I could tell I wanted to read about mycelium when I first skimmed the article last winter, even though it's been more than forty years since I studied chemistry or biology – and even though I didn't think I'd ever heard of mycelium (not true, I'm sure.)

But every time I sat down with it I'd get interrupted and, true to introvert form, it did take too much energy to jump back into a subject I was so rusty in.

I understand it when Stamets says both animals and fungi inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, suggesting that humans are more closely related to fungi than we are to plants. But if I got interrupted there, I couldn't pick it up days later and resume at the section about fungi stomachs. I'd have to start over, which got old fast.

On New Year's morning, though, when I finally got to the end of the interview, I had the same reaction as the interviewer: "Stamets fundamentally changed my view of nature…" I didn't just get some interesting information about fungi – it shifted my paradigm, and in an expansive way. Very satisfying learning experience.

Of course, now my introvert brain wants to think about this idea of fungi helping save the world. What to do? Re-read the article? I don't have a photographic memory and I read it on New Year's Day in the bathtub (holiday reading), so I didn't even underline. To have a decent conversation about it, I'd need to read it again.

Or should I give in to my curiosity and get the book? A fundamental shift in my view of nature is no small thing, certainly worthy of one book, to a book addict like me.

And it's not satisfying to leave something this interesting at one article. (After all, I just found out mycelia use the same neurotransmitters humans use to think!) The hunger for depth isn't easy to ignore.

Besides "the pleasure of finding things out" (the title of a collection of short works by Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, no doubt an introvert), there's also the issue of being an informed citizen. Some months ago I read an article in The Atlantic magazine called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" My story about taking a year to read a seven-page article would fit right in.

But there are piles of books and articles hovering around me. And it takes energy to bring a new body of information into my head. And energy is a precious introvert commodity.

What to do. Here's what I know: I love to read and I love open-ended thinking and I'm not doing enough of either. I don't know if I'll get the book or re-read the article. But I'm glad the mycelia are out there doing their amazing mycelium business and I'm trusting that if Google is making us stupid, it's only temporary.

End of food for thought – on to some practical ideas:

A Practical Idea for Introverts

Look at your reading life: are you satisfied with it? If you are, have a moment of smiling. If you're not, how can it get better?

A Practical Idea for Extroverts

Compare notes with an introvert in your life about your reading likes, your reading habits. And what about Google? Has the internet changed your reading life? How?

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