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Why reading books is so important

Anecdotes have never really enjoyed the credibility of a statistical conclusion. Regardless, they have certainly basked in the glory as conversation starters. Especially in this situation as an opening to the discourse of something as personal as ones’ reading habit.

Just recently, I took some time off from my busy Netflixing schedule to glance at my book shelf, looking at the once silent friends I could never let go. I realized I had only been acquainted with them, not having made a serious relationship with many.

I had read only a fraction with a majority of them continuing to lament in the lowly status of still reading without any promising signs of completion in the near future. And I am sure I am not alone, in fact I am quite certain that I belong to one of the non-book clubs with a growing membership of people who have not completed reading a single book in months.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent agency of the US government, estimates that less than half of the adult American population reads literature, with a loss of 20 million readers between 1982 and 2002. And not just adults, even though reading habit increases with age, the number of readers within each group has declined since the 1980s.

And the decay is not a phenomenon of the recent decades. University of Maryland had performed time-use studies, showing amount of time spent in reading. The study indicated a decline from 85% in 1946 to 55% in 1985. So, even magazines and newspapers are not to be spared in the large-scale abandonment movement!

Why have reading habits changed?

Certainly not for the lack of books or for that matter the lack of book stores. The revenue from global book sales is estimated to grow from 113 billion USD in 2015 to 123 billion USD in 2020 (Statista). All these book sales and yet the above indicated readership loss by 20 million in 20 years!

Why this disparity? ‘Coz buying and reading are mutually exclusive. Just because you have purchased a book doesn’t mean, with certainty, that you will complete reading it. Many of them will most likely rest in peace on your book shelf.

It is intuitive to arrive at some of the reasons for the changing habit. While you could easily say, I could have told you so, the NEA has listed possible reasons why not-reading has encroached the territory of potential readers.

  • One of the main reasons would be the explosion of mass media, and electronic engagement, that has been giving literature a stiff competition. Young kids and adults alike are bombarded with TV programming, video games, internet and its millions of distracting videos and channels.
    Even in the 1990s, US children were being brought up in households with an average of 3 televisions, 2 VCRs, 1.4 video game players and at least 1 computer. And those were the times when computers were priced at three times the cost now.
  • Recreation has found new meaning. 5.7% of all recreational spending, in 1990, was on books while audio, video, and non-bookish spending made up 6% of the expenses. In 2002, this number on electronic entertainment shot up to 24% of recreational spending while books remained at a somewhat similar 5.6%.
    So, you might say, that on top of the explosion of electronic media entertainment, even the willingness to spend money on the same, has increased.
    Hence, despite the increase in the number of college graduates, and consequently people with better jobs than before and more buying capacity, books have not really featured as priority. The idea of engaging your mind to effectively comprehend words requires far more commitment than being a passive participant while a dynamic array of images is able to capture your imagination.

The other non-media, and non-NEA quoted, yet related reason is the lack of time owing to the pace of modern times. With people having to keep up with multiple jobs, housekeeping, and an all-around busy schedule, sitting down with a book and ponder its pages doesn’t fit as much as parking on a couch and thumbing the remote or a game app.

Why is reading so important?

The most basic benefit of reading is in its ability to transform our thoughts. When we read, our mind is compelled to comprehend the words, figure out their relations in the context, and recognize logical contradictions. We are no longer just seeing a situation or event unfold, we are carefully organizing the events in our mind and analysing them. As such, it is this slow effective comprehension and recognition which is the essence of understanding information.

And has the world simply accepted its benefits at face value, just ‘coz someone who loves reading proclaimed them to be so? Well, no. Researchers have worked hard and successfully established the correlation between reading, even for pleasure, and academic success. Perhaps that is why schools, nowadays, are recognizing the value of effective reading and encouraging various established programs to promote reading among children.

Silent reading, in the form of measures like SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or SQRT (Sustained Quiet Reading Time), are now being employed at schools to develop a habit of reading. Long-term participation in such programs promote literacy and in turn promote reading like a delightful feedback loop.

All these measures are various forms of passive teaching methods where students use their time to read any book of their liking, silently, getting into the habit of appreciating books. Read How to improve your Reading Skills

Here are some research accomplishments that have shown the value and benefits in effective reading as a soft skill, helping in developing the harder skills towards success.

  • Promote Lifelong Education: Several independent research studies, show a pattern of motivation towards learning, and seeking knowledge, among individuals with an interest in reading. Others have found a corroborating correlation between reading interest and lifelong learning, the ability towards continuing ones’ education. Certainly, that is a skill that goes beyond the education years and well into the well-formed capacity of a functional adult, in pursuit of a career where he/she intends to grow by learning more.
  • Increase Academic Success: Pleasure reading, reading classics, story books, novels, are also associated with academic achievement. Studies (sources 3,4,5 below) have shown that students who develop a reading habit, even leisure reading for that matter, are able to learn story structures, gain the capacity to grasp information, and even comprehend more complex reading, with improved process of thinking, evaluating, analysing, judging, seeing relations, and even problem-solving.
    Besides an increased propensity for reading achievement tests, good readers, according to a study, are also inclined to get overall better academic scores.
  • Enhance other soft skills: Not to mention vocabulary development, communication skills, writing skills, and the ability to express well in any language (source 6). Read List of key soft skills


So, what did we learn? Reading books is too good of a skill to let it die a rather premature death. After all, it has only been a few centuries, 8th BCE to be precise, since the alphabet was created and only 500 years since the first words were printed.

Let this skill survive at least another 1000 years before we are ready to concede to electronic everything. After all, this soft skill has been making us sound thinking individuals. Look at me, I am ready to give up my dinner and a movie for a comic book tonight…

I have to start small, don’t I?

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Rakhi Acharyya
About Rakhi Acharyya
Rakhi is a freelance writer, a Physics PhD from Michigan State University, an ex-teacher and a former employee of Corporate America. Follow her on Twitter.

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