We know that reading is good for us — so why aren’t we reading more? According to the Pew Research Center, more people are not even reading a single book a year: “27% of adults say they have not read any books in the past year, up from 19% in 2011.”
The National Endowment for the Arts uncovered similar findings. Not only did they find that the percentage of adult Americans reading literature (short stories, novels, play, poems, etc.) dropped dramatically from 1982 to 2002, but that this decline has paralleled a decline in total book reading overall.
The amount of words we read in a day might actually be increasing because we’re reading more social media posts, text messages, and website messaging than ever before, but there are certain benefits to reading books — especially literary works. Reading long-form writing such as novels, short stories, magazine features, narrative non-fiction books, and biographies can make our lives richer in three compelling areas.
Reading helps us think better
The first benefit is intellectual: reading books helps us think better. Studies show a relationship between reading and critical thinking. The more we read, the more we’re engaging a variety of cognitive abilities: organizing ideas in our head, considering diverse viewpoints, discerning context and subtext, filtering intent or bias, concentrating in a sustained manner, and so on. Reading books offers our brains an intense, multi-exercise workout, so to speak.
This insight has even been picked up by some in the business world because the more employees read, the better they’ll likely be at their jobs. The Harvard Business Review produced an article detailing that having employees read more “can develop the qualities, traits, and characteristics of those employees that organizations hope to attract and retain.”
It’s important to note that not all reading is equal, though. Limiting our reading to tweets and text messages and even a self-help book does not produce the same type of cognitive benefits as tackling Crime and Punishment or a scholarly article on the social hierarchy of bees. To get the most out of our reading we need to read widely and engage more complex material. So, in addition to reading a good book on improving your life or a fast-paced suspense novel — both fine things to do — consider reading a literary novel, poetry, or an essay to better exercise your mind as well.
Reading can make us better people
A fascinating benefit of reading is that it may actually make us better people. While more research needs to be done in this area, there are some promising signs that reading literary fiction can increase emotional intelligence and make us more empathetic.
Science Direct featured a study in which reading literature led to increased levels of affective empathy, prosocial behavior, and emotional perception. Again, it’s important to clarify that this occurred from reading specific material — namely literary fiction. It’s another example of how what we read matters as much as how much we’re reading.
Literary fiction, unlike popular fiction or non-fiction, requires a specific type of imaginative thinking. Literary fiction is usually concerned with subtle character development, subtext, the psychology of its characters, the existence of moral dilemmas, and so on. This encourages us to imagine what it’s like to be another person and what characters’ actions or language mean beyond the surface. By practicing these skills when we read, we’re able to better apply them to real life: we’re more willing to engage in empathetic and prosocial behavior because we understand social cues, can relate more easily to someone else’s experience, and so on. The takeaway: reading literature might actually make us better people.
In fact, the University of California, Irvine is offering humanities courses to its medical students precisely for this purpose. The goal of the courses, which require literary reading, is to help future doctors foster greater “empathy, altruism, compassion, and caring toward patients, as well as to hone clinical communication and observational skills.”
Reading enriches our lives
Lastly, reading is fun and invigorating. Reading another person’s biography or memoir can help us imagine what it’s like to have lived another life. Reading an autobiography can help us appreciate the difficulties of another time and place and what it takes to live with courage and hope. Reading the news helps us stay informed and actively engaged in our culture.
Reading a good book can help us dream, reminding us that there is more to life than the ordinary day-to-day. And when we’re feeling lonely we can pick up a book and enter the great conversation of history, taking solace in how many before us have also struggled with life’s challenges and difficulties.
On a practical level, reading is also a wonderful way to remain curious, life-long learners. Reading a book on starting a business can equip us to pursue our professional dreams. Reading a book about the expanse of the cosmos or the depths of the ocean can foster a state of wonder and gratitude for the natural world. Reading about the saints or mystics can deepen our spiritual life and help us grow in wisdom. Put simply: the more we read, the more we’ll learn about our world, others, and ourselves.
Living boldly and finding purpose and meaning is a project that begins on the inside by cultivating a rich interior life. But rooting your life with interiority takes effort — that’s why a community of faith is a huge help. Reading is another tool to pick up in this life-long task — while it is carried out as a solitary activity, it connects us to others in profound and adventurous ways.