Writers on ReadingAmerican authors

Reasons to Justify Your Passion for Reading

The Benefits of Reading

For large numbers of people, reading is a form of entertainment. A chance to escape from their normal lives and be transported to a different time or place. For a short time, they also get an opportunity to inhabit other lives that could be more exciting than their own.

Other people read to improve their knowledge. Obviously students and school pupils fall into this camp. But they are not the only readers who delve into a book so they can feel better informed about a particular subject. Biographies, memoirs, travelogues all bring opportunities for discovery.

Do the benefits of reading go beyond entertainment and knowledge?

The answer from American novelist and activist, James Baldwin is an unequivocal yes.

It was reading that helped him leap over the barriers he experienced when growing up as a black child in a white neighbourhood. And then during his early adult years when he frequently encountered discrimination, being turned away from restaurants, bars and other establishments because he was African American.

In an interview for LIFE Magazine in 1963, he described how, as a child, he read everything he could get his hands on from the public library

… murder mysteries, The Good Earth, everything. By the time I was thirteen I had read myself out of Harlem. What I had to do then was bring the two things together: the possibilities the books suggested and the impossibilities of the life around me.

Reading, said Baldwin, taught him that the things that tormented him the most were the same things experienced by people in the novels.

You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. 

What Happens When We Read?

Recent decades have seen a wealth of scientific studies designed to address that very question.

Some studies looked at the benefits of reading on stress levels others on mental ability and emotional capacity. What these scientists discovered make a compelling argument about the transformational nature of books.

Reading Enlarges Your Brain

Let’s take the example of a study by two scientists at Pittsburgy-Carnegie Mellon University.

Instead of looking at the effects of reading on the body’s physiological, psychological and emotional mechanisms, they turned their attention to the brain.

Would reading have any effects on the neurological system, they wondered.

Their study of children aged eight to ten discovered that a programme to help children improve their reading skills caused a re-wiring of their brains.

The quality of white matter in the children’s brains — the tissue that carries signals between areas of grey matter where information is processed — improved substantially during the programme..

Although the study was relatively small (just 72 subjects), the researchers believed it could be a break-through in treating developmental disorders, including autism.

Reading Makes You Smarter

If our brains can change as a result of reading, what does that mean for intelligence levels?

It turns out that reading and intelligence have a symbiotic relationship.

“Crystallised intelligence” – the mishmash of knowledge that fills our brains – is improved with reading. As is “fluid intelligence” which is the ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful patterns.

Some academics have used these connections to explain a 20 point increase credited in IQ scores among students. It’s the result, they claim of an increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in UK schools.

The lesson? If you want to have a chance of winning Mastermind or to excel in a survival exercise, you’d better get those books out now.

Reading Creates Empathy

But wait a moment. Being able to regurgitate facts and figures or to see connections between random thoughts might seem impressive.

But we’re missing a vital factor. One that makes an even more compelling reason for us to read and read and read.

For there’s third type of intelligence that is even more profoundly impacted by reading it appears. It’s called “emotional intelligence”.

We’re talking here about the ability to accurately read and understand our own and others’ feelings. And how to respond appropriately.

How do we know this?

In a 2013 Harvard study, a group of 1000 volunteers were put through an experiment designed to test other people’s mental states – what scientists call Theory of Mind.

One group was assigned literary fiction such as Corrie by Alice Munro and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. Another read popular fiction such as Space Jockey by Robert Heinlein. A third group got nonfiction such as “How the Potato Changed the World” by Charles Mann. A control group had nothing to read.

Across five experiments, people in the literary fiction group performed better on tasks like predicting how characters would act. They had a stronger ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions – a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.

One of the study leaders said the results showed that social empathy was enhanced by reading literary fiction.

If we engage with characters who are nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand, then I think we’re more likely to approach people in the real world with an interest and humility necessary for dealing with complex individuals,”

David Kidd, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education

Reading other kinds of fiction – like graphic novels, light romances, chick lit – didn’t have anywhere near the same kind of benefit, the study leaders maintain.

Why the difference? Literary fiction (or what they called ‘writerly fiction’ contains more gaps in detail. The reader therefore has to work harder to find their way through the blanks, drawing more upon their ability to connect and to imagine. So instead of being told what a character is thinking, readers of literary fiction have to interpret it for themselves based on how they are shown of the character’s actions.

Reading Improves Mental Well-Being

The ability to understand other people’s emotions is now being viewed as a key element in the power of reading to affect mental well-being.

In part this is due to the benefit of reading on stress levels, as discovered in a 2009 study at the University of Sussex,

The researchers took a bunch of volunteers and put them through a series of activities designed to increase their heart rate and stress levels. Then they were tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation.

The activity that turned out to have the biggest effect, was reading.

Reading a novel for just six minutes lowered the volunteers’ stress levels by 68 percent. Other anti-stress strategies did work, just not to the same extent.

Going for a walk for example led to a 42 percent reduction; drinking a cup of tea or coffee saw a 54 percent improvement. Listening to music fared better, resulting in a 61 percent reduction in stress.

The authors reasoned that it’s the ability to be fully immersed and distracted that makes reading the perfect way to relieve stress.

This finding has had profound implications for the treatment of mental disorders. Doctors are now increasingly prescribing books to patients with depression or emotional disturbance. 

‘Bibliotherapy’ as it’s been termed, isn’t new – it was apparently coined in 1916 by a clergyman named Samuel Crothers. But the National Health Service in the UK is taking a much closer interest into the benefits of literary prescriptions.

Since 2013 they’ve been working with The Reading Agency on a programme called Reading Well which offers a books-on-prescription scheme and a recommended list of mood-enhancing fiction that can be sourced from public libraries. The results so far are impressive.

These are the theories. Is this what happens in real life?

I’ve certainly had times when I’ve turned to books to help take my mind off a stressful situation. But I’ve been struggling to think of situations in which I’ve found empathy by reading a book. Or made a connection between my own situation and what I find in a work of fiction. Maybe the connection has happened but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Or maybe the time has not yet come.

What do you think about all these studies? Do you know of people who who have found comfort in books? Do share your insights if you feel comfortable about doing so.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

34 thoughts on “Reasons to Justify Your Passion for Reading

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  • I’m not sure it improved my mental well-being, but growing up in the south (USA) as the internet was only just gaining traction the library, books, and bookstores were some of the only places I could read about/learn about LGBT individuals, whether fictional or not. Hiding in the stacks and reading stories of coming out or about historical figures was eye opening and helped me come to terms with who I was even through undergrad when a whole new world in the library on a liberal university campus opened up to me. Even now, as I read the plethora of LGBT young adult fiction that seems to be EVERYWHERE, I find myself reminiscing of stolen moments in various libraries finding passing mentions of a gay character or hints at a gay romance.

    • One of the many reasons why public libraries are so precious and need to be protected…

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  • Like Baldwin, reading showed me that there was a life other than the one I was brought up in. I lived in one of Birmingham’s red light districts, all the girls I went to school with left at fifteen and although I don’t know how many went into the local ‘profession’ it was certainly the first job offer that I had. But, I had read my Enid Blyton, most importantly, the Malory Tower books. I knew that girls could go to university, they could be writers, they could be teachers, most importantly, perhaps, they could be dreamers of dreams. It took time because most of my studying was done while I was working (not under a red light!) so I was forty-eight by the time I got my PhD but I got there and it was reading that pointed the way.

    • I often hear people talk about the power of books to transform lives. You’ve just shown that those are not empty words, books *can* have that effect. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story Ann

  • Judy Krueger

    I am glad to hear that the way I spend most of my time is good for me!

    • The research about the neurological effect was the one that interested me the most.

  • Reading saved me. I had a employer years ago who was an Intelligent officer in Vietnam and he said reading saved him too. He said he could open a book and enter another world.

    • I seem to recall hearing of a program to encourage more soldiers/members of the armed forces to read as a way of dealing with combat stress

  • Reading doesn’t lower my stress levels, for the simple reason I can’t read when I’m stressed. On the other hand I was born with zero Emotional Intelligence and it is only through reading – and yes that includes romance fiction – well reading and lectures from wives and daughters, that I begin to understand how other people think.

    • I can read when I’m stressed but the choice of books changes significantly. I find literary fiction doesn’t work but crime does though I don’t know why.

  • I think I’m more empathetic because I read – maybe not at the individual level, but politically. Reading books about other cultures, written by people of those cultures, makes me appreciate their complexity rather than just accepting the image of them we’re fed through the news. And reading across the political divides makes me less likely to write off people whose opinions I don’t share as somehow being “stupid”. I do wonder though if all the “make you more…” categories couldn’t be explained the other way round – that people are more drawn to lit-fic if they are instinctively more empathetic etc.

    • The key is the book is written by someone from that country/culture – that’s what I tried to find when I started my quest to read more broadly from around the world. It would be easy to find books set in country X but if they’re written by a non native I suspect they wouldn’t have that ring of authenticity.

  • I read a lot of memoirs and a lot of those are focused on grief and trauma. I am also a counsellor (and do a lot of grief work). I absolutely think I find empathy in reading (and although I’m not a bibliotherapist – although I’d like to be! – I sometimes recommend particular books to my clients.

    • Have you found that the recommendations have made a difference to those people Kate? I’ve been wondering whether someone is experiencing grief or huge stress, would find it helpful to read about another person in the same situation or would it just deepen their feelings?

  • I grew up in a volatile family of alchoholic non readers. There was a small library I used to seek refuge in. Our town had 5000 people in midwest America so it wasn’t that big of a library. There I discovered a set of biographies of famous people. Ben Franklin, Helen Keller, Madam Curie. I read the whole set of about 40 books at least twice. I learned through books the value of education and how important it is if you want to escape into a better life. I stuck it out with school while my siblings went in entirely different ways. They did not read. I credit books for keeping me in school right through to my master’s degree. And not an alcoholic in sight in my life anymore. Books open your mind and let you disappear into so many cultures. My brother is now a Trump supporter of the highest order. I blame his lack of reading, education and travel. James Baldwin knew what he was talking about.

    • What a superb testament of the impact a public library can have on an individual. I get so angry when I hear of yet another library in the UK being closed because the local government authorities don’t think they are an essential service. Stories like yours show just have essential they are.

      • Thank you. I am a strong supporter of libraries. They are important on so many fronts.

  • Lyn Leader-Elliott

    You’ve put together a very interesting piece pulling together different research strands. Wonderful, thank you. Well written memoir can have some of the same impact as fiction in revealing lives one couldn’t have imagined. Reading has helped me to see that I have an incredibly privileged and fortunate life, especially as a woman in this world. It helps give me a world view, a wide view of life and lives.
    Sometimes I read just for entertainment, but mostly nonfiction (history, bio) and lit fiction, increasingly in translation from other languages.

    • That’s a great point about memories Lyn, It’s often the stories about people who are not ultra famous that I appreciate the most because I can relate more to them than I can to ‘celebs’.

  • LOL we are the wrong people to ask about this, because we all love reading. And truth be told, we would go on doing it even if science proved it was bad for us.
    It’s a strange thing, that reading, which is a high-status activity when we are young, becomes something less admirable as we get older. Bookworms sense a vague disapproval in the comment ‘always got her nose in a book’ while Sportsfans and Outdoor Types (of whom there are countless numbers here in Australia) sniff derisively and jog restlessly while they talk about getting outside in the fresh air.
    Lately, I’ve discovered something to shut them up, though being deeply empathetic from all my reading I know that their derision stems from their insecurity so I don’t actually say it… longitudinal studies show that reading staves off dementia. It’s like conversation, which does the same thing. When you talk/read, you receive info, and even as it continues, you are sifting it, judging it to see if it makes sense and if you agree, and (crucially) your brain is conjuring a rejoinder, it is summarising what you’ve read/heard and enabling you to select part of it so that you can engage either by replying to the speaker or continuing with the book which now includes your interpretation along with the words on the page. The brain does not freeze the conversation or the turning of the pages, it is a continuous process, a major workout for the brain analogous to a gym workout for the body. But we readers do it every day, for hours.
    Loneliness is a risk factor for dementia, and we are never lonely when we are in a book.

    • I roll my eyes any time I hear people trot out that phrase about ‘nose always in book’ . `it often comes from people in the ‘eyes always on the TV’ camp. Does it derive from their insecurity – quite possibly. Certain people love to make fun of something they don’t understand personally.

      Those longitudinal studies on dementia are interesting. There’s been a lot of talk about using puzzles like sudoko and crosswords to engage the brain and stave off dementia but I’m not particularly convinced about the former. Would love to see a study that compared those activities with reading to see whether they have similar/different effects

      • The difficulty with research into dementia is that it’s so very difficult to identify factors that cause it, partly because it’s so hard to diagnose until things are well-advanced, and even harder to see if some intervention can then slow the process. So longitudinal studies are best, and basically they show that the best protection is all those lifestyle things that we already know are good for us, healthy diet, exercise, active brain e.g. learning languages, reading and writing, conversation etc.
        The learning languages connection is the interesting thing to me: when you learn another language you are switching between two words/sentence structures in your mind at the same time, and you are also making connections to help you out when you don’t know a word, e.g. May I sit on that chair? Peux-je m’asseoir sur cette (forgets chaise) chose que vous êtes assis? (that thing you sit on?) The analogy is that you are using the side streets to get there instead of the highway, and when you have lots of brain connections forming side streets, you have a back-up for if there’s a blockage in the highway because the connection in your brain is tangled. That is not something that Sudoku can offer, but playing music can because again you are doing two things at once, reading the score and making your hands perform the music.
        I did a marvellous (free) MOOC called Understanding Dementia at the Wicking Institute at the University of Tasmania, and I recommend it to everybody because it’s based on the latest research and teaches really useful strategies for supporting a loved one who falls victim to dementia.

        • thanks for the info on that MOOC course, I just missed the latest start date unfortunately but it’s back again in February. I’d heard that learning a language was extremely beneficial but hadn’t seen an explanation of why that would be the case. I’m wondering if its enough to be able to learn it to write in the language or does the real benefit come when you have to speak in the language (reason I ask is that I am asolutely hopeless at getting the accent right in French)

        • LOL I am the last person you should ask about the French accent. I left England when I was a small child, but still they can detect my English accent!
          I’m no expert, but I would say the test is whether you are using that process that I described as ‘conversational’, that is, writing as if you were speaking, no using dictionaries but doing the best you can with what words you have.
          And writing is, of itself, beneficial. The process we use when we write our reviews – all that synthesising, summarising, evaluating, selecting quotations to suit our arguments, drawing on previous reading (themes, characters, settings, style etc) – all that is high-powered exercise for the brain:)

        • That’s a relief. When we used to travel to France I would have to tell my husband what to say – even though his French was non existent he is brilliant at mimicking accents. We made a good team! I like the idea of just writing in the language – no-one but me will see all the mistakes

  • Rachel Bridgeman

    Apart from immediately taking umbrage with light fiction/romance and graphic novels having no effect on social empathy whilst literary fiction does-despite literary fiction being still so inaccessible to the majority of people and difficult to read-I find it odd that there is a need to justify reading and back it up with science..
    It’s my personal escape hatch from life’s troubles,absolutely,they are a source of comfort and release.And that very rarely comes from a highbrow source.Defending the choice of reading material seems to be more common,imho,than the act itself however this blogpost so neatly follows the one you wrote about being on public transport with a book.People look at you askance for having a book like you came from the Dark Ages!

    • Unfortunately the authors never really explained what they meant by literary fiction. But it would be a shame if people felt that the outcome of the study was that lit fiction is the only kind of book worth reading. I’d rather people read what they enjoy than they felt guilty or inadequate in some way because they’re not reading the ‘right’ books.
      Some lit fiction I find impossible to enjoy because the author is too busy showing how clever they are to spend much time thinking whether their reader is having a good time

  • Well, I’m now armed with plenty of arguments for anyone who criticises me. Certainly you learn from reading – and I would say there’s the possibility of developing empathy from reading stories about other peoples and cultures. And it most definitely improves my mental state – reading is my coping mechanism!

    • Good point about learning from other cultures. I think reading Wild Swans did help me understand the attitudes of my Chinese colleagues much better

  • piningforthewest

    My mother-in-law who had MS always turned to her ancient and falling apart copy of Gone With the Wind when she was having a bad time with the illness, it was her comfort read, but I’ve always avoided it for that reason.

    • You’ve made me think if i have a go-to book. At the moment I’m thinking it would be Middlemarch


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