Open a book, open your mind

Today is World Book Day, and whilst we’re not dressing up as our favourite literary characters (Miss Shepherd from Lady in the Van, if you were interested. Safe to say I never dressed up as her at school though), we are reflecting on why it’s important to find time to read as an adult.

Undoubtedly, you do some form of reading every single day. Whizzing through work emails, scanning the news, scrolling through Twitter… But when was the last time you read something longer than a pamphlet, just for the sheer enjoyment of it? In 2017, a mere 19% of Americans over the age of 15 read for pleasure on a given day – almost a 10% drop from 2004. Now, obviously that doesn’t translate like-for-like to the U.K., but I’d anticipate our figure being similar.

I admit, it’s hard to commit to sitting down and focusing solely on one somewhat ‘unproductive’ activity like reading, especially when at the back of your mind there’s a plethora of life admin to be cracking on with, housework to be blitzing and exercise to be doing. But reading isn’t an unproductive activity, and what you can gain from between the pages of a book (or the screen of a Kindle) knows no bounds.

There’s a tonne of research on the benefits of reading, from stress relief to improving your memory, but I’m going to take a look at two of the most important reasons I think we need to find the time to read.

1. Self-development

Reading books develops your vocabulary. The proof is in the pudding – apoplectic, vituperation, glib, capricious, laconic, scion, nascent and alacrity are all words I’ve learnt since the start of 2019, thanks to reading. And, seeing as language shapes the way we think, by totting up your vocab, what you’re actually doing is increasing your toolbox for understanding and describing the world around you.

It doesn’t have to be non-fiction for you to learn something either. Fiction has a unique ability to increase your social awareness and teach you to be a better human. It allows you to experience cultures that you may otherwise never have been exposed to. It helps you to feel how someone else feels and see how their experience of the world is different to your own.

This in turn develops empathy and understanding, as shown by researchers from the Netherlands in 2013, who used transportation theory to explain how people who are “emotionally transported” by reading fiction can experience higher levels of empathy. Indeed, in an interview for The New York Review, Obama said “When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy.”

2. An infrastructure to dream

Just a couple of the titles I saw when I did my usual skim over the headlines this morning were “Backstop may threaten Northern Irish human rights, says Cox” and “Party chairman accused of repeatedly ignoring racism complaints”. It’s pretty disheartening stuff, but books can provide some relief from these harsh headlines and allow us space to escape, to think, to dream.

This is because the slow pace and required concentration of reading demands for something called ‘narrative immersion’, which means we can focus more intensely on the task at hand and block out external stimuli. The ability to transcend the here and now allows us the quiet needed to imagine new worlds, to develop opinions and for our creativity to flourish – something which can’t happen when you’re scrolling down the ‘gram.

Poet Wendy Cope said on her recent Desert Island Disks interview that dream time is a really important part of writing, and Einstein is often quoted as saying “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales…”, and who are we to dispute those great minds?!

So, whether it’s at the park, on your commute, or in bed, be sure to make the time to open a book and open your mind.

Written by:

Leah Groom


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