Sometimes I tell people that reading saved my life. Yes, but it also made my life what it is.
When I was growing up, I was a shy child in a big family, and my parents had other problems besides the six of us. Reading was my escape from the stress of the household, from my fears, and from the world. Whenever anyone was looking for me, they knew I could be found with my “nose in a book” somewhere.
Reading opened up new worlds for me. I delved into adventure, mysteries, career women, and love stories. It showed me the possibilities that were out there for me if I could just be brave enough to go after them. Reading also comforted me, making me realize that other people had problems too, bigger than mine, and that they were not insurmountable.
Reading doesn’t really qualify as a relaxation technique in stress reduction, as it tends to activate and mentally arouse people most of the time. But reading for pleasure is a form of play or recreation. In that context, it serves to distract from stressors and give us a break from whatever else is going on in life. It turns out that reading for pleasure can allow people to either dull or heighten consciousness. So if someone has a lot of fear or anxiety, reading can block some self-awareness; while if a person is in a more positive mental state, reading can heighten consciousness and allow more self-exploration.
Life is just better if you are a reader. A National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report from 2007 called reading “transforming”, saying that it “awakens people’s social and civic sense” and that reading “correlates with measures of positive personal and social behavior”. In fact, people who are regular readers go to more concerts and theatre, exercise more, play more sports, and are twice as likely to volunteer.
Reading gives people a way of connecting to others, both through the empathy it arouses and by providing topics of conversation, ideas and common ground.
Studies on reading show a correlation between reading ability and more time spent reading; but it’s hard to say whether one causes the other. What we do know is that while reading ability continues to rise at the elementary school level, it declines in the teenage years. Time spent reading is down among both teenagers and adults; and both reading ability and the habit of reading for pleasure are declining in college graduates. It is not hard to guess one of the reasons why this is so. The drop in literary reading has correlated with the rise in Internet use.
Why be concerned? For one thing, reading less, and the lower academic achievement associated with it, are also correlated with less success in the job market. High-level reading and writing skills are highly sought by employers, and one of the biggest problems they cite in hiring. Reading ability helps us process an increasingly complex society, from understanding our health care options to knowing how to handle our finances. As the NEA report put it, “Reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities.”
Summer seems like a good time to begin or re-discover the habit of reading. (I have fond memories of the summer reading program at my local library.) Marcel Proust said, “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” Why should that end with childhood? Pick up a book today and see where your imagination takes you.