I came across a Ted Talk yesterday that asked the question, “What’s the Use of Reading?” The speaker, Beth Ann Fennelly, proposed that research demonstrates that reading fosters empathy in the reader, and some fascinating MRI research showing how most of our brains light up whe we read–perhaps a good argument for staying mentally sharp.
I didn’t think this was the only benefit to reading. So I asked my friends at Bob on Books “What effect do you think reading has on the kind of person you are?” Now this is not scientific and is self-reporting but I was impressed with the variety of ways reading affects the dedicated readers on this page.
There is a quote among the bookish that “I read so I know things.” Knowledge, understanding, perspective, discernment, and wisdom came up quite a bit. Often we read because we are curious, and aware of our ignorance in some area we would like to better understand.
Reading offers the chance to be an independent thinker. This requires that we don’t passively absorb what we read but engage and even argue with it. It means we read different points of view, and use it to test our own way of thinking.
Reading can widen our worlds. It takes us to places, introduces us to different peoples, and even other parts of the universe, from the microscopic to the ultra-distant. It helps us see that there is more than one way to see the world or solve a problem.
Reading fosters imagination. We hear the voices of people speaking, envision the scenes, taste the tastes, and smell the smells according to the brain research. We imagine ourselves in situations and how we would act. Sometimes this leads us to imagine how we will act in real life. Sometimes, that imagination leads to out of the box solutions to real life problems.
Reading relaxes us and even helps us sleep (unless what we are reading is so riveting that it keeps us awake!). Reading allows us a respite from the thoughts and concerns of daily life, a chance to set them aside. I think of that not as escape, but rather hitting “pause.” Sometimes those pauses allow us to return with greater freshness to the challenges of daily life.
One reader made the observation that you could turn this around and consider how the kind of person we are shapes our reading life. Is it because we are curious, independent minded, empathetic, and imaginative, that we read? My hunch is that it goes both ways. I also suspect that many of us began reading because someone we admired was a reader and imparted their love of books to us.
Does reading make us better people? It may, or may not. Some might be shaped by what we read and whether this sustains “the better angels of our nature” or encourages us to embrace the darkness. We might devote ourselves to the best that is thought and written, or to tawdry page-turners that no one will want in ten years. Our reading choices no doubt reflect the bent of our character, but also will tend to reinforce our tendencies for good or ill.
One last remark on the effects of reading. Most of us tend not to take kindly to being interrupted in our reading. It makes us cranky!