Reading is good for you

There is a simple and inexpensive treatment that reduces symptoms of depression and the risk of dementia, improves wellbeing throughout life increases empathy, improves relationships with others and makes you happy. It’s freely available to everyone, at least while public libraries still exist. To make the treatment effective the only necessary pre-condition is enjoyment:

With reading so good for you this statement, from the Reading Agency is a little shocking:

In the UK, reading levels are low among people of all ages: most children do not read on a daily basis and almost a third of adults don’t read for pleasure. (August 2015)

I think again of the young woman in the bookshop I reported on in a recent post: ‘I’ve never bought a book in my life’.

Old Woman Reading by Sandor Galimberti 1907 via WikiCommons.

Old Woman Reading by Sandor Galimberti 1907 via WikiCommons.

Reading is good for you

In the summer the Reading Agency published the report The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. It brought together findings from 51 research papers to conclude that reading does us good.

Reading helps you understand the world

Barack Obama was talking to novelist Marilyn Robinson when he described how reading made him a better citizen, which was about

being comfortable with the notion that the world is complex and full of greys, but there is still truth to be found …And the notion that its positive to connect with someone else though they be very different to you. (From The Guardian 30.10.15)

The President is a best selling writer himself. The importance of fiction for politicians was wittily demonstrated by Yann Martel in his book What are you Reading Mr Harper? and explored in a recent blogpost here.

The Reading Agency report indicates that reading is helpful to all readers in developing and understanding of other people and cultures and thereby helps develop empathy.

Reading helps you understand yourself better

If reading develops empathy, we should not be surprised that reading helps us understand ourselves as well, helps with developing out identities. Fiction, in particular, helps you see the world and yourself in it, in new ways, opens up possibilities.

Reading helps your cognitive functions

This is just another way of saying that reading keeps you mentally active, increases your knowledge, provokes you with conundrums and mysteries, expands your vocabulary, encourages your creativity, helps you become a better writer.

Reading helps you feel better: bibliotherapy

The New Yorker published an article called Can Reading Make you Happy? by Ceridwen Dovey in January 2015. The answer is yes, and you can read the piece here. She had experienced bibliotherapy suggested by one of the authors of The Reading Cure.

223 novel cure coverThe Reading Cure: and A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin is a handbook to keep with your other home cures, according to the writers. This book has a book for every condition, every ailment. Of course I checked up on one or two and selected one or two of their suggestions.

Noisy neighbours – well their dogs? Try some audio books, read by top class readers: Middlemarch by George Eliot read by Juliet Stevenson; The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, read by Alan Rickman.

Being Seventy-Something? (I’m not, but it’s not far off). Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Procrastinating? The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Partner snoring? They recommended some soothing books but I’d recommend any book, the edge brought sharply into contact with the shoulder, enough to get them to change their position.

And let’s not forget that books help us relax, calm us, take us far away from our own struggles.


223 Peanuts librarySo if reading is such a good thing, why, oh why, are so many councils closing libraries? (Yes, yes, I know that so-called austerity means difficult choices for councils, pitting beds for old people and holes in the roads against free and available books). We really need to keep on at the people who suggest library cuts. One way is to support National Library Day on Saturday 6th February 2016. Details on the Reading Agency’s website.

Sources for this post

The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, a literature review for The Reading Agency, June 2015. Conducted by BOP Consulting funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation. Also available from the Reading Agency’s website.

Reading for pleasure builds empathy and improves wellbeing from The Reading Agency (August 2015)

5 Ways Reading Can Improve Your Life by Leila Cruickshank, on Scottish Book Trust website (November 2015)

The Power of Reading from Norah Colvin’s blog in August 2015.

The Reading Cure: and A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Published in 2015 by Canongate. 460pp

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Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, Reading, Writing

22 Responses to Reading is good for you

  1. Very thought provoking post. And since reading has always been my coping mechanism, I can’t help but agree that it’s very good for you!

  2. Great post. It is really important to introduce children to libraries and to use them, otherwise we will probably lose them.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for coming by and commenting. I agree with you about children and libraries. Watch out for a post about libraries in early February. Saturday 6th February is National Library Day.

  3. Reading helps when you are miserable – but that does rather depend on how hard you are crying. Then it has to be the radio.
    Brilliant post. Thank you.

    • Caroline

      Well yes, tears can make it hard to read. But actually I cry less when I read than watching TV or listening to the radio. But reading helps.

  4. Something I really regret is the way in which reading to children in schools has vanished. I taught primary classes for seventeen years and in all that time not a day went by when I didn’t read to them for the last twenty minutes of every day. For most of that time, as well, I would give them twenty minutes a day to read to themselves, modelling the behaviour my reading myself. If you get the habit established earlier and show them by your own behaviour that reading is something worth making time to do there is the chance that some at least will go on reading after they’ve left you behind.

    • Caroline

      Hi Alex, I agree about the importance of establishing good reading habits from an early age. My grandsons had books in front of them from just a few weeks old. And they love them now, the older one a competant reader, the younger one just entering that magic world.
      Have they lost stories altogether in primary schools. I remember going into a school in West London, for research, and the whole place was quiet, everyone in it was reading: children, teaching assistants, teachers, administrators, caretaking staff, dinner ladies … and me. Reading together so powerful.
      Even if school isnt pushing it parents supported by libraries can, and do.
      Thanks for the thoughts.

  5. While I do think that reading is beneficial, I really want to emphasize that’s it’s 100% fine not to read, too. It’s not for everyone and that’s okay.

    • Caroline

      I think I can agree, logically that people should be free to read or not. BUT it is such a good way to develop some important skills, especially about understanding other people and believing that things can be different, that I would only let them off the hook if they were finding other ways of developing those skills.
      And of course, not everyone who reads gains those skills either. Plenty of people read (and watch tv and films) just for the escitement of the story.
      Of course a good liberal like me doesn’t want to force people to do anything. I guess.

      Thanks for this thought Jen, which will exercise me all day!

  6. I’m surprised anyone thinks reading isn’t a good thing. I’ve been to places in books to which I can never go in reality and met people who would terrify me. I’ve also experienced things in books which have helped me handle them in real life. It’s thanks to reading that I can consider myself articulate.

    • Caroline

      Hi April, that’s a good list of things that reading has done for you. And I love the idea that reading has made you articulate.
      I don’t think it’s so much that people think reading is a bad thing, or not a good thing, but I think it is important to articulate why reading is a good thing. Not just passing the time time.
      I come from a generation whose parents often said, ‘you shouldn’t be reading, go and do something useful,’ especially if they were reading during daylight hours. Not my parents I’m glad to say.
      Thanks for coming by. Hope to read more from you


  7. Eileen

    Yes, I don’t know what I’d do without books – either to be thumbed through, read on electronic screen or hearing them being read or seeing films, plays and so on.
    You make a powerful claim for all the benefits of reading but some things don’t come automatically I find – insights (personal or political) understanding self or others, seeing the world differently – I think these need to be processed – as in the review, learn and apply cycle. I like it when Isobel has finished a book we have both read and we can discuss it. I am not a reading group member and I have heard that that kind of personal and political review after completing a book is rare – there is talk about the themes usually, I am told, but real analysis seems to be lacking.
    Learning about the writing process through reading is one I am caught up in all the time and it sometimes takes me ages to read a book as I re-read really good sentence construction or ‘correct’ over-written sentences. (Funny – it is much harder to do that on your own writing.) I was told at school that really good writers read and read and read. And I think that is so true. x

    • Caroline

      Hi Eileen,
      As April says, reading can take you to places you’d never go in reality. I think at the least reading can do that. Reading means that that the world must be imagined differently. But i agree, that to get most out of reading a reflection process has to take place. That’s one reason I enjoy blogging – it forces me to think about my reading.
      And as for learning about how to write from reading, well, again I don’t quite know how it works, but you can see that writing can be done in different ways. At the very least one can phrases or sentence openers adopted from others.
      Both Reading and writing are social processes at heart.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments

  8. Eileen

    Yea, I really liked April Munday’s thoughts – great name too. Reading can take you into new worlds.
    I have just finished ‘Disclaimer’ by Renee Knight and am just reading ‘I let you go’ by Clare Mackintosh and both have horrible descriptions of abuse to a female characters and I wonder, for the first time, whether some books are bad for you in that they reinforce the view that violence against women is OK.
    These two books are not ones I would have chosen but after getting a copy of the wonderful book ‘Grief is the thing with feathers’ I asked what books the very helpful assistant, female, in the bookshop in Dorchester would recommend. I like sometimes to take books on recommendation and am not often disappointed.

    • Caroline

      I’m trying to get through A Brief History of 7 Killings, by Marlon James. It feels violent on every page, in every voice. I have not yet decided whether it’s justified. Sometimes I think it is not clear cut.
      And, as you know, I am a little wary of some people’s recommendations.Glad you like mine though!
      More discussion needed I think.
      C xx

  9. Great post, Caroline. Reading is extremely important, for all of those reasons you listed. How sad it is that people don’t read; and how cruel that closing public libraries is even contemplated. We must make reading and books accessible to everyone. We need an educated society for any real improvement to occur. National Library Day is an important event for the UK, as is the books for prisoners project that you frequently mention and support. It is important that we keep promoting reading and books. Thank you for referencing and linking to my post. 🙂

    • Caroline

      Hi Norah. We so agree on these things. Libraries, reading, education, voice of the unheard … We need to keep on saying it. Reading is a good thing.

  10. Anne Gore

    My friend and I were talking about ageing and how one could learn to cope with increasing disability . We also wondered what circumstances might be impossible to endure. Well absolute senility for one except that one would not realise what was going on. But we talked about physical deprivation and both agreed that were we unable to read then it would be very hard to want to carry on. Of course there are talking books- and they certainly saved my father’s sanity when he went blind- but not to be able to escape into reading would be a horror.

    • Caroline

      Hi Anne. These conversations are increasingly familiar in my life too. I thought it was just because I am writing a book on ageing with two other woman. But perhaps it’s just an age thing.
      I hadn’t thought about not being able to read. That would be tough. But I guess I’d learn how to do audio books. But would I be able to blog? Would I want to?
      Caroline xx

  11. I like the way you link Reading is Good for you and public libraries. And I liked reading about Obama which I will read more about. Thank you.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for the comment. I’m passionate about libraries. It’ll soon be National Library Day so another blogpost about libraries is approaching.

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