I know people who talk about not reading a book since high school or college as if it’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, they’re not alone.
According to Pew Research Center, twenty-five percent of adult men and twenty-two percent of adult women didn’t read a book in the past twelve months.
In 1978, Gallup research reported that forty-two percent of adults had read eleven or more books in the past year. Today, only twenty-eight percent of adults reach that mark.
Overall, time spent reading for pleasure has decreased while time spent on our digital devices has increased. And increased social media usage has consistently been linked to increased feelings of anxiety, depression, and social isolation.
However, the news is not all glum.
Younger generations are reading more than previous generations were at the same age, and, contrary to popular opinion, physical book sales are actually increasing.
And part of the reason could be that a new generation is discovering (or rediscovering) the mental health benefits of curling up with a good book.
Reading exercises and stimulates parts of the brain associated with memory, imagination, critical thinking, and creativity in ways watching television simply cannot do.
A study from the University of Sussex found that setting aside a few minutes each day for reading can decrease stress levels by sixty-eight percent. In fact, reading was a more effective stress reliever than walking, listening to music, or drinking a cup of warm tea.
In some parts of the world, books are “prescribed” by therapists and counselors to ease the effects of depression and anxiety.
A lifetime habit of daily reading can help preserve brain health and stave off symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Reading prior to bed can help ease your brain into a more restful night’s sleep.
People who read more fiction are more likely to have higher levels of empathy and compassion. This is a result of “emotional transportation,” or a novel’s ability to let us experience lives different from our own.
In a study conducted in the United Kingdom, researchers found that children exposed to the Harry Potter book series expressed more compassion toward stigmatized groups (like immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees) than their parents.
Reading (fiction, specifically) for just fifteen minutes per day can carry the same health and wellness benefits of daily mediation.
If you read and surround yourself with other people who read, I guarantee you’ll consistently have more interesting conversations and more meaningful things to think about in your day-to-day interactions.
That’s all fine and dandy, you say to yourself. But I don’t have any time to read!
You probably have more free time than you think.
The average American spends at least two hours per day scrolling mindlessly through their social media feeds. And that doesn’t include the time in the front of the television watching Netflix or sports.
I know the responsibilities and stresses of parenthood torpedo many people’s’ annual reading goals, but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to words on a physical page.
Online subscription services like Audible offer audiobooks for a monthly subscription fee. And most large libraries allow you to “rent” downloadable audiobooks.
I have a friend with two young children who “read” more than sixty books this year by renting audiobooks from her local library and subscribing to Audible.
And speaking of children, the beneficial effects of reading extend beyond your own headspace.
Children who grow up in a household where they see one or both parents reading for pleasure are more likely to be avid readers in the future.
(Also, children who raised in houses with lots of books tend be higher earners later on in life).
Reading with your child (even after they learn how to read themselves) assists with their cognitive development and stimulate areas of their brain associated with narrative comprehension and mental imagery.
However, we tend to make reading a whole lot harder than it needs to be.
On average, if you read fifteen minutes a day, you can easily finish two books per month. That’s twenty-four books in a year. Or, if you can find the time to read twenty pages a day, you can read four-hundred pages in a month (if you take the weekends off).
That fifteen-minute timespan I keep mentioning is very important. It’s the amount of time it takes your brain to immerse itself in whatever you’re doing. The same rule holds true for movies, video games, and mediation.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I felt like I was really there,” when talking about a book?
In fifteen minutes, your brain will gradually decrease your awareness of your immediate surroundings while simultaneously increasing your sensory perception of the inner world unfolding within your mind.
Your brain is an incredible machine. Through the written word, you can easily be transported to distant battlefields, fantasy kingdoms in peril, the wind-torn peaks of Himalayas, or gruesome crime scenes.
But your distaste of reading may not entirely be your fault.
I think a lot of people don’t like to read because their prior experience with reading has been objectively boring.
To be honest, many of the books we’re required to read in middle and high school aren’t that interesting. Literary merit aside, it’s difficult for teenagers to connect with characters and prose that was written around the time their great-grandparents were born.
Unfortunately, our associations with required reading and dull coursework extend beyond graduation.
I fell in love with reading early on in my life not because I was reading high-brow literary fiction, but because I was riveted by novels about man-eating sharks, secret agents foiling terrorist attacks, alien invasions and dinosaurs attacking theme-park guests.
(And guess what? I still have a soft spot for pulpy science fiction and violent techno-thrillers).
George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire book series that inspired HBO’s Game of Thrones, wrote, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
For example, in 2018 alone, I helped build a cathedral in 12th-century England, biked from Oregon to tip of South America, survived a haunted spaceship possessed by a rogue artificial intelligence, graduated from a university for magicians, solved a series of grisly murders in Kansas, and experienced the chaotic hours in Memphis following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Who knows what I’ll get to experience in 2019?
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, said, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.”
What kinds of movies do you like to watch? What types of stories inspire you?
Don’t read what you already know.
Read what you want to experience.
Read what you want to learn.
If you’re a Christian, read a book about religion written by someone from a different faith tradition (or no faith at all).
If you’re white, read a book written by a person of color.
If you’re a middle-class American, read a book about a person whose cultural heritage and life experiences look nothing like your own.
If you love horror movies, read a book with a lot of blood and guts and carnage.
If you love video games, read a book packed to the brim with explosions, bullets, and car chases.
If you’re a sport fanatic, read a biography of a game-changing athlete.
If you love the outdoors, read an account of people pushing themselves to the absolute brink of human endurance in the wilderness.
If you’re passionate about a particular social cause, read first-hand accounts of people who live, work, and survive in those environments.
And if you’re really crunched for time, read a collection of short stories related to a genre you love.
Unless you’re blind, deaf, and have yet to learn braille, there’s not an excuse to not read (or listen to) more books this year.
Your mental health will be better for it,
your family will be better for it,
and the world will be better for it.
If you need any recommendations, do not hesitate to ask.
And for God’s sake, please stop bragging about being allergic to bookstores or not reading a book in ages. No one is impressed.