Last updated: May 15, 2017
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The public library is a phenomena that to this day I still can’t get over. Free knowledge, for anyone. Literally, anyone. I can’t think of an equivalent other than going to a clothing store, “checking out” an outfit, wearing the outfit and returning it in four weeks, free of charge.
Except books are so much better than clothes.
Recently I’ve been on a huge reading kick, checking out anything I can get my hands on in the library.
I’ve found that no matter what I read, the act of reading every day has helped me in nearly every aspect of my life. Here are a few of my favorite ways that reading has improved my quality of life, and will definitely improve yours.
1. Enhanced Smarts
Wow, this may be the most obvious statement of the post, right? Well, it turns out that reading helps in almost every area of smarts. Those that read have higher GPA’s, higher intelligence, and general knowledge than those that don’t. In Anne E. Cunningham’s paper What Reading Does for the Mind (pdf version), she found that reading, in general, makes you smarter, and it keeps you sharp as you age.
No matter what you’re wanting to do or become, you can’t do it without more knowledge. Reading is an excellent way to get where you’re wanting to go.
2. Reading reduces stress
When I’m reading a book, my mind shifts gears. Where I might have a had a stressful day, a book can easily distract me. Fiction is fantastic for this. Reading an awesome fiction book is perfect right before bed time. Though sometimes it’s hard to put the book down if it’s really good. Still, you’ll be relaxed ;)
Photo by MorBCN
3. Greater tranquility
Reading can soothe like no other. Given that I’m a pretty high-energy person, reading forces me to sit and be still. This daily act of making myself be quiet and still has been nothing short of miraculous for my anxiety and my “fidgety factor”.
Lisa Bu has a fantastic TED talk about how reading can open you mind. It’s only 6 minutes and well worth a watch.
4. Improved analytical thinking
That’s right, ladies and germs. Cunningham’s studies have found that analytical thinking is boosted by reading. Readers improve their general knowledge, and more importantly are able to spot patterns quicker. If you can spot patterns quicker, your analytical skills receive a boost.
5. Increased vocabulary
It’s no secret that reading increases your vocabulary and improves your spelling, but did you know that reading increases your vocabulary more than talking or direct teaching? Reading forces us to look at words that we might not have seen or heard recently at the pub. In fact, language in children’s books are likely to be more sophisticated than your average conversation.
Increased vocabulary is especially crucial for bloggers or writers. All successful writers will tell you that in order to write well, you need to read. Every day. You’ll be surprised at the words you start incorporating into your writing.
A beefier vocabulary isn’t just for writers though. Knowing what other people are saying and using the perfect words to convey your feelings is a critical part of being a better human. Better listeners are more successful in life.
(Side note: If you’re concerned with your well-being at previously mentioned pub, you might lay off the more obnoxious terms you’ve picked up.)
6. Improved memory
I have an awful memory. Just ask my fiancee. I usually can’t remember what I’ve eaten for breakfast, let alone things like names and address. Yet I’ve been finding that I can remember stuff much easier when I’ve been reading consistently. Do I have any scientific data to match this up? Not really. But I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that reading has somehow given me memory mojo.
7. Improved writing skills
This isn’t much of a stretch, considering that reading improves vocabulary and critical thinking. I feel like a better writer, as I’m constantly surrounding myself with works from people who are better than me. That’s why English classes in High School make you read “the classics”. That’s why art students learn to copy masterpieces, so they know what creating something incredible should feel like.
The more you read, the better of a writer you’ll become.
Photo by prosperina*
8. Helps prioritize goals
Many times we’re certain we know what we “really want” in life. Yet I’ve found that activities like reading show me things I didn’t know about myself. My mind will drift to things that I’d really like to do, and it isn’t long that these little lapses in reading start to cycle. The same sort of goals keep popping into my head, allowing me to see what I really want to do.
For example, I’ve been playing music on a consistent basis, but I’ve always wanted to produce and distribute my own music. As I’ve been reading, I’ve found that song ideas and other general thoughts on music keep popping into my head. It’s my times reading that have really pushed me into giving music a serious go.
When you remove yourself from your work environment, you’ll start to see things that you might really want to do, that you’re not doing yet. Reading gives you a chance for your mind to wander.
No time to read? No money for books?
If you think that you don’t have enough time to start reading, you’re wrong. How do I know? Because we make time for the things that are important to us. How much TV do you watch? How much time do you spend trawling the web? You could easily replace reading with those activities.
If you’re worried about the cost of books, check ’em out at the local library. Most libraries take advantage of the interlibrary loan system, so you can check out nearly any book on the planet. I also use Worldcat to find libraries in the area that might have my book.
There’s really no excuse to start reading on a regular basis. The benefits far outweigh the costs, and more knowledge never hurt anybody.
Ready to start reading? You might also be interested in How to Focus on Reading and my book summary of How to Read a Book.
When I was eight years old, I still couldn't read. I remember my teacher Mrs Browning walking over to my desk and asking me to read a few sentences from a Dick and Jane book. She pointed to a word. "Tuh-hee," I said, trying to pronounce it. "The," she said, correcting me, and that's when it clicked – the moment when I learned to read the word "the".
Growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey, in the 1960s, I was what Mrs Browning called "slow". During a parent-teacher meeting, she told my mother: "Daniel is a slow learner." I sat during lunch in the gymnasium with the – forgive the term – dumb kids. I was grouped with them during reading and maths: the "slow group".
And then, a year later, I was rescued by Spider-Man. My best friend Dan, who was reading chapter books by kindergarten, had started reading Spider-Man and other comics with some other kid, and together they began drawing and writing their own comics. In response to this loathsome intruder's kidnapping of my best friend, I began reading comics, too, and then began scrawling and scribbling my own. Soon, Dan and I were happily spending every afternoon on our masterworks, while the interloper was never heard from again.
By age 11, I was getting straight As. Later in my teens, I took a college admissions course in the US, and scored the equivalent of 136 on an IQ test. So what happened there? Was Mrs Browning right – was I actually "slow" when I was eight – and did I somehow become smarter because I immersed myself in reading and writing comic books?
In part to answer that question, I spent three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world, reviewing their studies and testing new methods they claim can increase intelligence. And while nobody would ever call reading a "new" method for improving the mind, recent scientific studies have confirmed that reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.
That goes for all three meanings of the word "intelligence" widely recognised by psychologist. First, there is "crystallised intelligence" – the potpourri of knowledge that fills your brain. When you learn how to ride a bicycle, or the name of a new friend, you are gaining not just information but potentially useful knowledge that, in aggregate, forms the backbone of your ability to navigate and thrive in the world. By adding to that storehouse, reading increases your crystallised intelligence. That explains why some IQ tests include vocabulary words, which generally serve as a reliable proxy of how clever you are.
But all of us know people with little "book knowledge" who are nonetheless sharp and insightful. "Fluid intelligence" is that ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful patterns. Of course, you can read little or nothing at all and still be brilliant at "reading between the lines" of a conversation. But in today's world, fluid intelligence and reading generally go hand in hand. In fact, the increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in schools may partly explain why students perform, on average, about 20 points higher on IQ tests than in the early 20th century. The so-called Flynn effect is named after James Flynn, a New Zealand professor who has devoted much of his career to studying the worldwide phenomena of increasing IQ scores. But if reading can increase fluid intelligence, the converse is also true: increased fluid intelligence also improves reading comprehension, according to studies by Jason Chein of Temple University in Philadelphia. He used "working memory" tasks that train people's ability to juggle and continually update multiple items of attention – to keep track of a moving dot, for instance, and recognise when it lands on a spot it occupied two, three or more moves ago. In papers published in scientific journals in 2010 and 2011, he showed that as both younger and older adults improved their performance on working-memory tasks, they were better able to comprehend reading materials.
A third type of intelligence has gained widespread interest of late: "emotional intelligence", the ability to accurately read and respond to your own and others' feelings. It may seem odd to imagine that reading can improve your emotional intelligence. But in October, the journal Science published an extraordinary study showing that reading literary fiction can improve people's theory of mind (ToM) – their ability to understand others' mental states. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, both of the New School for Social Research in New York, enlisted hundreds of participants online to read examples of either non-fiction, popular fiction or literary fiction, and then to take tests measuring the accuracy of their ToM. In five experiments, they showed that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of both emotional and cognitive ToM compared with reading non-fiction, popular fiction or nothing at all.
The literary fiction found to increase people's ToM included A Chameleon by Anton Chekhov, The Runner by Don DeLillo, and The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht. The study did, however, contain a glaring omission: it failed to measure the extraordinary impact of Spider-Man by that great literary genius, Stan Lee.