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The Forgotten Perks of Reading Fiction

The Digital Age has heightened the habit of skimming everything we read—mindless text on the screen to timeless literature to magazine articles. But there are a number of invaluable benefits to allowing yourself to become fully arrested by a narrative, exchanging the day’s trivialities for an imaginary affair.

It may seem like you’re wasting time: Why commit to hundreds of uncharted pages when instead you can be productive toward your to-do list? In truth, books save you time. They introduce you to places, characters and events that would take years, maybe lifetimes, to experience in reality. Within a few books, you’ve become a citizen of the world, exposed to countless alternative realities. That’s not just a romantic notion, either. In a 2009 study, 28 men and women read fiction while researchers tracked brain activity using an MRI. As the participants reached different points in the plot, their brains reacted the same way as if it were truly occurring in their own lives. You’re not just digesting text, but actually living the story.


Utne Reader Bookshelf


It’s also not just for entertainment. Maryanne Wolf, a professor and director of the Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research, said reading is also about “connecting information to your own background knowledge and helping you form your own creative thoughts.” The well-written word is capable of providing us with maps of our own minds. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In the words of a great writer, we find our own neglected thoughts.”

You’re heightening a sense of empathy when engaging in other points of views, as well. In a world where money and power dominate our value system, you’re able to sympathize with characters or groups that may not get their due exposure in the real world. And rather than reading books as a distraction, try regarding it as therapy. A 2010 study by MindLab Intelligent Insights proved that reading a captivating book for as little as six minutes can reduce stress by 60 percent.

Real Simple has a few strategies for those trying to get back into the swing of reading:

  1. Choose a book you’re drawn to. Don’t feel pressured to go for what everyone else is reading or something overtly demanding. Cheesy romance, young-adult, detective novels—it’s your call. If you’re out of practice but wanting to try out a challenging author, maybe start with short stories and ease into her narrative style.
  2. Fill your shelves with books. One international study shows that people whose parents’ homes contained about 500 books (regardless of income or educational background) opted for at least 3 years of additional schooling than did those whose childhood homes contained no books.
  3. Don’t wait for bedtime. Leave a book in your car or purse so you’re ready for an impromptu reading session. Show your kids you read so they understand it’s also enjoyable, not just homework.
  4. Be willing to abandon ship. Try giving the book at least 50 pages to win you over; by then you at least have a sense of the author’s style and taste of the plot. Not a fan? Don’t feel stuck—just go for something else. No judgments here.

Image by roeven, licensed under Creative Commons