Science confirms what we already knew — books are good for us

Sinoxolo Njenjembana,12, browses through a book with Relda Donaldson from The Bookery at the Jarvis Gqamlana School in New Brighton. Reading is a habit best acquired when young. A survey in 2019 found that only 26% of under-18s read every day.
A DAILY ACTIVITY: Sinoxolo Njenjembana,12, browses through a book with Relda Donaldson from The Bookery at the Jarvis Gqamlana School in New Brighton. Reading is a habit best acquired when young. A survey in 2019 found that only 26% of under-18s read every day.
Image: WERNER HILLS

 

Ahead of World Book Day on Thursday, two research studies give a mixed account of the current state of our national relationship with literature.

In his recently published book, Reading for Life, Professor Philip Davis explores the neuroscience of reading. Using brain imaging and other monitoring technologies to record the physical responses of his subjects to the act of reading, he found that literary classics can “galvanise” our brains and influence the way we process emotion, while the effect of self-help books was decidedly less dramatic. He concluded that the right kind of literary therapy could help people suffering with mental disorders such as depression and mild to moderate dementia.

Davis's research offers scientific proof of what has been known anecdotally for millennia — that reading makes you feel better. A good book is a more effective mood-lifter than chocolate, alcohol, shopping or Prozac, with none of the lamentable side effects.

A good book is a more effective mood-lifter than chocolate, alcohol, shopping or Prozac, with none of the lamentable side effects.

From Cicero's lost Consolatio, written while mourning the death of his daughter, to Francis Spufford's memoir of childhood reading, The Child that Books Built, and Laura Freeman's The Reading Cure, the therapeutic effects of reading are well documented.

Print is a mind-altering substance to which one never builds up a tolerance.

I read constantly for pleasure, but reading is also the therapy to which I turn in life crises large and small.

The novels of George Eliot sustained me during an acute depression in my early 30s, while rereading Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers and Palliser novels cheered me last winter during an interminable bout of flu. Davis's study confirmed what Spufford, Freeman, and my own experience suggest: that when it comes to curative properties, the classics are by far the most potent.

What Charles Lamb called “things in books' clothing” — whose modern incarnations might be self-help books, chick-lit, airport thrillers and so on — fail to create an immersive imaginary universe from which we emerge with a sense that we are not alone in our troubles.

Reading builds resilience, so it is a habit best acquired when young. But a survey by the National Literacy Trust found that in 2019, only 26% of under-18s read every day — the lowest level since records began in 2005. The alternatives to reading are ever more insistent and beguiling, and the written word can sometimes seem too puny a weapon with which to oppose the jittery glamour of screens. But screens are to books what fast food is to slow food.

Latterly we have become much more alert to the quality of what we eat: if that heightened awareness were extended to the stuff with which we nourish our children's brains and our own, reading for pleasure might become as ubiquitous as avocado toast. It doesn't take much to start a personal reading revolution. No smart device or internet connection is required: just a book, a child, and 10 minutes in which to venture into a world of undiscovered marvels. 


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