C. S. Lewis once said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” While I enjoy an occasional cup of Darjeeling, I like coffee or hot chocolate just as well. But you’ll have to pry a good book from my cold, dead fingers.
And when I say “book,” I mean the real thing—three-dimensional, with paper and ink, something your hands can touch and your olfactory senses can smell—not the fleeting pixels on your smartphone or tablet. Reading books, not just articles, blog posts, or tweets, is indispensable to living the good life.
That’s why our culture’s decline in reading is so worrisome. According to the American Time Use Survey, in 2003, the share of Americans who read anything at all during a day was 26.3 percent—just over one in four. By 2016, that number had plunged to 19.5 percent—just under one in five. While the average amount of time that readers invested in reading each day climbed from 1.39 to 1.48 hours, the average time an American spends reading fell from .36 to .29 hours—because fewer of us are reading.
And what are we doing instead? The survey points to game-playing, computer use, and television-watching. Reading books, however, is better, and healthier, than any of them.
Game-playing: Game-playing in moderation is not bad—but it is no substitute for reading. While prior research has suggested that interactive gaming may promote memory, attention spans, perception, and motor skills, a newer study strongly suggests that reading better improves learning skills such as memory and comprehension and that educators should promote it.
Computers: Writing for Psychology Today, Susan Weinschenk reminds us that texting, Twitter, and the Web are engineered to trigger the brain chemical called dopamine. “Dopamine,” she says, “causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search.” In short, computer use is addictive. It’s also not as efficacious as book reading. Researchers found that “teenagers who read material on a printed page understood the text significantly better than those who read the same material on a screen.” Dr. Martin J. Tobin explains why: “Online reading involves a diﬀerent form of literacy than that of the printed page. The eyes bounce and flicker as they dart promiscuously, searching for nuggets of information and quick wins. It is almost as if people go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense. The instant presentation of expansive information threatens the more demanding task of the formation of in-depth knowledge. Literacy—the most empowering achievement of our civilisation—is being replaced by screen savviness.”
Television: While the proportion of Americans who watch TV has remained at a relatively constant 80 percent between 2003 and 2016, on average the time spent in front of the boob tube jumped from 3.28 to 3.45 hours. And the playing field is not evened by restricting TV to “quality” programs (of which there are many). The activity is inherently problematic. A 2013 study of children in Japan found that the more TV they watched, the parts of their brains associated with higher arousal and aggression levels became thicker, and their verbal test results became lower.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The fact that you’re reading this article on a website means that I don’t have a fundamental problem with articles or technology. But, the question still remains. Why is reading—and particularly book reading—so much better for you than these other activities?
“Cognitive scientists have discovered that reading is not only a visual activity, but also a bodily activity,” Tobin says. “A book is a physical object: you see and feel where a book begins and ends; you feel the texture of its pages. Leafing back and forth through diﬀerent portions of a book provides a mental map of the entire text, aiding comprehension of relationships and context—and recall.”
Reading heightens brain connectivity, fluid intelligence (“the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge”), comprehension, emotional intelligence, and concentration. Each of us experiences a book differently, as we use our imagination to fill in the details. Reading engages our brains on two levels—cognitively and emotionally.
Not only can reading improve the quality of your life, it can also increase its quantity. Yale researchers found that book readers live longer than non-readers, and that those who on average read more than a half an hour per day lived nearly two years longer than non-readers.
“Further,” the researchers said, “any level of book reading gave a significantly stronger survival advantage than reading periodicals…. This finding suggests that reading books provide[s] a survival advantage due to the immersive nature that helps maintain cognitive status.” That’s good news for anyone concerned about Alzheimer’s or other brain disorders.
Alzheimer’s, research has shown, is 2.5 times less likely to afflict seniors who read regularly, while TV is a known risk factor. Meanwhile, a mere six minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by 68 percent, which is a better return than listening to music (61 percent), drinking tea or coffee (54 percent), or taking a walk (42 percent).
Anyone can see that reading is good for your mind and for your body. But is it good for your soul? The ancient Jewish scribes, who painstakingly copied the Hebrew Scriptures character by character and line by line, surely would agree. So would the monks who rescued the foundational works of Western Civilization from destruction. The Bible translators who gave their lives so that people could have God’s Word in their own languages no doubt would assent heartily. As one whose spiritual and intellectual life has been immeasurably strengthened by books, I can only add my voice to this historical chorus. It’s the main reason I write.
So, start by finding a good book, perhaps one you have been thinking about but were “too busy” to read, and crack it open. There are lots of possibilities out there. And don’t neglect your Bible, which, after all, is “the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; this is the Royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.” Then set aside a definite time during the day or week when you won’t be distracted and get reacquainted with the quiet pleasure of reading a good book.
And while you’re at it, why not make yourself a nice cup of tea?
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of God’s Story in 66 Verses.