Reading for fun provides lifelong benefits

There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”–Walt Disney

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I recently had a high school student ask me, with great sincerity, why reading was important.  

“It’s not like it’s as important as math, science, or even computer class,” he added.

Why read indeed?  It is a question I have had to answer for decades as an educator, and one that occurs with growing frequency.  When all the answers to nearly every conceivable question are merely a few keyboard clicks away, why pick up a book, especially a work of fiction.  The number of inquiries I now field from parents questioning the value of their teen children reading, when their child already has “so much to do” is also increasing.

My observations reflect overall data trends in the United States.  According to one recent 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, approximately 23% of the population did not read in part, or in whole, a book–paper, electronic, or audio–during last year.  Additionally, the number of American children between the ages of 9-13 who read for fun is also dropping according to another Pew Research Center article.  Adults who are reading, are reading fewer books than ever, approximately 12 books per year reports a recent 2021 Gallup Poll. This is the lowest number Gallup has observed since they first began tracking reading in 1990.

Given the fast pace of life, the number of responsibilities we tend to juggle, not to mention all social media outlets and streaming services that vie for our attention, I can certainly understand why reading has become a bottom feeder on society’s list of priorities.  However, research, science, and even the business world have a new message for us.  Reading, including reading fiction, is important, and it is worth considering moving to the forefront of routine priorities.

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Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”–Margaret Fuller

Habitual reading is now viewed as beneficial to careers and to the business world.  This position is reflected in the growing number of recent articles by respected business publications, such as the Harvard Business Review, Business News Daily, and Business Insider.  This is because one of the benefits of reading fiction is that it helps strengthen several cognitive skills that are critical for developing EQ, or emotional intelligence. Reading increases one’s vocabulary and ability to solve problems creatively.  It fosters empathy, builds critical thinking skills, and increases the ability to understand and respect those whose beliefs and desires may differ from their own.   In fact, businesses are now using reading facilitators, such as Reflection Point, a nonprofit organization, to use shared workplace reading experiences and conversations as one method for strengthening collaboration and inclusion within the workplace. 

Beyond the business world, however, reading offers a wide array of benefits to every individual.  One of the more obvious benefits of reading is pleasure, which, in turn, reduces stress. Science not only backs this fact up, but also reveals both mental and physical benefits of reading, no matter your age.  From the youngest, emergent readers all the way through your senior years, and even those critical teen years, reading can benefit your mind and body throughout a lifetime.

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Reading strengthens cognitive function and may reduce cognitive decline.  MRI and brain-scan based studies have demonstrated that reading dramatically changes your brain.  As you read, a complex series of signals and circuits are engaged throughout your brain.  As your reading skills advance, so do those neural pathways.  Additionally, reading stimulates a flow of blood, oxygen, and other nutrients to the brain, which could help stave off age-related cognitive decline and strengthen cognitive function and enhance memory.  Reading has even been linked to increased activity in the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that responds to physical sensations.

Reading can help manage stress. Obviously, reading is not the only tool for managing stress, but reading, as little as 30 minutes a day, has been shown to ease muscle tension while reducing blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of stress. 

Reading fosters empathy and improves relationships. Empathy, the ability to understand how another person is feeling, is key to fostering social, interpersonal, and work relationships.  Reading about the lives of others, be they real or imaginary, broadens our experiences and offers insight into situations, feelings, and beliefs that we may not otherwise be able to experience.  This knowledge builds what is known as “theory of mind”, which can lead to more tolerant and compassionate attitudes towards others as well as for ourselves.

 Reading builds vocabulary. This one is a no-brainer, but it also exposes us to language outside of our everyday conversational experiences as well as to a variety of sentence structures, voices, and styles that can strengthen and enhance our personal communication skills.

Reading helps adolescents with self identity.  As a middle and high school educator of a so-called “soft-subject”, this is important validation.  Identity development is a critical component of the teen years.  Identity of self is typically developed through real-world relationships, events, and maturity, but it is now known that reading can also play an important role in this development. Reading allows teens a safe and distanced way to develop insight and explore relationships, friendships, cultural identities, and personal values which can help them as they navigate their own feelings, determine their identity/values while transitioning into adulthood.

Reading builds perseverance and inspires creativity.  Reading teaches you to be ok with ambiguity, and it reduces the desire for immediate gratification.  The ability to read a book demands setting a goal, sticking with it over a period of time, and builds our focus/concentration stamina.  These skills can translate into the ability to think creatively and solve problems. 

Reading may add years to lifespan.  While reading won’t replace longevity health habits such as eating well, incorporating movement throughout the day, and getting quality sleep, regular reading has been a proven life lengthener.  According to one study, reading a chapter per day, equivalent to 3½ hours per week, adds nearly two years more to a person’s life expectancy when compared to nonreaders. 

Reading may improve your mental well-being and prepare you for a good night’s sleep.  One of the top six tips for a better night’s sleep, according to doctors at the Mayo Clinic, includes reading a print book. Within about six minutes of reading a book, the body begins to relax, the heart begins to beat slower, and the day’s stress begins to fade into the background–all of which can lead to a better night’s sleep. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness encourages reading as one method for reducing anxiety and depression, lowering stress levels, and increasing one’s ability to relax. 

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No matter how busy our lives may become, taking time for reading, even if it’s listening to an audio book during your work commute, is as important now as it was when we were young.  With an endless array of  books available on-line, in bookstores, and housed in local libraries, on any number of topics, why not grab one and start reading today.  Get a friend or family member to join, so you can both reap those wonderful benefits reading has to offer.  

P.S.  If you haven’t yet discovered the Libby app, a free digital library app available through most U.S. state public libraries, I highly recommend this app for its free digital and audio content of books, magazines, and other publications!  It’s a budget friendly, easy way to read on any device! 

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A Good Morning Goodbye to Summer

“ . . . Goodnight mush

And goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush” 

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Good night noises everywhere”–Margaret Wise Brown from the book, Goodnight Moon, illustrated by Clement Hurd

When my daughter, Madelyn, aka “Maddie,” was a toddler, she had several favorite books with which she played, banged, tugged, and, eventually, pretended to read. One of those favorite titles was Margaret Wise Brown’s, Goodnight Moon.  Of course, as with most children, we went through several phases of “favorite books” that were the bedtime default for, “one more story,” before lights were out.  However, Goodnight Moon was an on again, off again favorite for a couple of years.  There is a reason this 1947 classic children’s story has sold millions of copies and has been translated into numerous languages.

I was reflecting upon those sweet, long ago reading-bedtime-stories-memories and comparing those times within the current context as I made my way through Ritter Park on what was my final week day workout of the summer . . .

Maddie in her extra soft jammies, smelling mildly of soap, her hair slightly damp, her skin soft, pink, and warm, as she wriggled a little closer, imploring me to read, “one more story.”  Reaching for Goodnight Moon for what felt like the thousandth time, I would often change the words of the story to reflect our house, her bedroom, and her surroundings, creating a more personal narrative.  Quite often, Maddie would join in with her own improvisation as well.  

Reading to my daughter is one of those memories that brings tears to my eyes because time seems to have transpired so swiftly.  It feels as if only last week that I was reading those stories, and numerous others, with her.  I didn’t realize then, that as quickly as those page-turning moments were occurring, they were likewise being replaced in the same way Maddie’s bedtime books were changing and evolving. The time of childhood kept moving forward like the plot of her stories. For unlike her storybooks that could be paused or stopped by simply closing the book, time did not then, nor does not now, allow me to stop the story of life from progressing.  Goodnight, Maddie, as a toddler.  

Miss Maddie grew, and with every page turn of life came a new image, a new stage, a new way of saying goodnight.  Giggle-filled toddlerhood seamlessly turned into the carefree days of preschool age, and soon enough the plot evolved into the pleasant days of kindergarten.  As life progressed, cheery days of elementary years were followed by those angsty years of middle school. Next came the plot-twists that belong to the high school years.  Presently, a new page has been turned, with more COVID-related turn-of-events occurring that continue to promote both her personal and academic growth as she makes her way through the challenging college years, especially within today’s state-of-affairs.  

Time just keeps cascading, drumming along, pattering out rhythmic beats of memories.  These snapshot moments of life with our daughter are like the bubbles she created in those early bygone years. Maddie would blow the bubbles into life and then chase those bubbles, trying to “catch” them, but bubbles tend to pop when you try to grasp them.  Instead bubbles are best enjoyed while savoring the creation of each one and then enjoying their flight as they glide through air as shiny kaleidoscopes of joyful color.  However, like my toddler daughter of all those years ago, we often give chase to life, trying to hold onto bubble-like moments of the past or bubbles that might be created in the future, often unaware that current bubbles of life-moments are floating within our view with little personal awareness.  

In some ways, though the pandemic has forced many of us to be more aware of the preciousness of life.  When life as we knew it, came to a screeching halt, or at the very least, drastically slowed down, time spent driving hither and thither was reduced to a bare minimum.  Spending most, to nearly all, of your time at home became the new normal.  The hands of life’s clock tick-tocked to the same rhythm, and yet, felt s-l-o-w-e-r.  Working from home in comfy clothes was the new cool.  John, Maddie, and me, like many that were lucky enough to remain employed or in school, worked from our home battling for wifi and dealing with the imperfection technology; and, truth-be-told, imperfect people since neither John nor I are tech savvy.   Somehow, though, we managed to keep turning those pages of work, school, and life, but it was different, and it seemed to revive the age-old theme for the desire of work-life balance and the importance of spending time with family and loved ones.

Now, as we return to new variations and designs of our work worlds, I have to wonder/worry if we are returning to the proverbial rat race.  While there were, and continue to be, many negatives of living with COVID-19, there were (and are) advantages to quarantining at home.  One of my big takeaways from the experience is that growing desire to strike a greater balance between work life, family, and time spent in meaningful, personal pursuits and/or expressions. COVID has revealed there is more to life than career, and there is likewise much value in time spent with people. While being able to financially support oneself is important, COVID has repeatedly reminded me, and many others, that our time on earth is like those bubbles of Maddie’s youth, elusive, colorful, but short-lived.  I want time to create and savor more meaningful bubbles of life moments.

As I continued down memory lane on that Ritter Park run of last week, I was reminded of the certain situations for which I am/was happy to say goodbye and others for which I am/was glad to say hello with regards to COVID, quarantine, and working from home as well as the positives and negatives of returning to work (school), albeit, with a new way of working and thinking about education and work-life in general.  In my head, Maddie’s Goodnight Moon’s simple verse informed thought bubbles of random rhymes and personal prose . . .

On a great big earth

There was a virus

And a numerous people of worth

And a picture of–

Distractions of media birth

And there were numerous world leaders sitting on chairs

And there were markets

And there were targets

And people were moving

And the bug was stewing

And there was more spread that grew in a rush

And there were even some men who were proclaiming, “hush”

Goodnight school

Goodnight need for much fuel

Goodnight countless people of worth

Hello time at home

Hello best-not-to-roam

Hello extra family time

Hello singing wind chime

Hello work from the table

Hello time for evening cable

Hello bedtime at dark

Hello paths of local parks

Hello time spent in nature

Hello medical danger

Hello life with COVID-19

Hello people on a virtual scene

Goodbye summer months that went by fast

Hello school bells ringing at last

Hello to the students I will see

Hello to the in-person teacher I will be

Goodbye warm lunch peacefully eaten alone.

Goodbye work from home

Hello continued work-friend, Google Chrome

Goodbye quarantine that abounds

Hello, the virus is still around

Hello to spaced out chairs

Hello to continued and fervent prayers

Goodbye work day morning run

Goodbye savoring dawn’s sun

And there’s still no goodbye to men proclaiming, “hush”

Goodbye sweatpants

Goodbye, my growing green plants

Goodbye quarantine life . . .

May this school year and fall 

be safe for all 

Goodbye, fellow morning exerciser, Deborah Garrett who walks an hour and forty minutes most mornings at Ritter Park. She says she “just loves it in Ritter Park.” I hope that I see you from time to time on the weekends. In the meantime, keep on stepping into life!