The detective paces around the crime scene, her heels clacking on the paving stones of 1917 New York. It had been weeks since the disappearance of a young girl, and her agency had finally followed their most promising lead here, to a small bicycle repair shop. Suddenly, one of her men shouts from the basement. They’ve found something! But what is it? The detective descends the steps to examine the cause of the commotion, only to be greeted with a shocking discovery, something that will dramatically alter the future of her investigation…
“Ella! Dinner!” Crap. I grimace and close my book, but not before slipping in a sticky note to mark my page. Later, I’ll come back with a hot cup of tea and a cozy blanket, ready to finally solve the mystery.
Beyond simply being an enjoyable way to pass time, reading has been scientifically proven to have several psychological and emotional benefits. Especially as boredom runs rampant during the long days of quarantining, reading is an excellent hobby for anyone to try. There isn’t anything quite like becoming engrossed in a book, as avid readers know, and this activity isn’t just for the academically inclined. Regardless of where your current comfort lies with paperbacks and hardcovers, here’s why reading should be at the top of your next leisure time to-do list.
Some students choose reading as a method of escapism from the mundane, such as Juno Ball (‘23).
“I get really immersed in the worlds,” Ball said. “I really like reading, especially fiction, because when I read, it seems so vivid. In first grade, I remember one time I got so lost in a book that I didn’t hear my teacher telling me it was time for lunch!” Ball’s experience is common among other book connoisseurs: when you begin to turn pages, you truly allow yourself to explore realities that leave you wishing you lived there too, or discover incredible true stories you had never heard of before.
Another student who is acquainted with the immersive quality of books, Zoe Smith (‘21) recalled a quote by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
“I think that’s so cool,” Smith gushed, “because you do get invested in the stories and you do feel like you’re part of them.”
ORHS English teacher Shauna Horsley elaborated on this, saying: “I love to read because it allows me to delve into the lives and experiences of characters whose struggles are different from my own… when I’m immersed in a book, it’s like being in a flow state.” It’s true that reading a particularly engaging story can make the world around you disappear and time fly by; while you’re seemingly sedentary in a chair or your bed with a book in yourlap, your imagination is really soaring through other worlds and characters and storylines, soaking it all up.
Alongside this personal testimony, there is a wealth of scientific evidence behind the benefits of reading. According to a 2009 study by the University of Sussex, reading was proven to be the best activity for alleviating stress, which was measured by tracking heart rate and muscle tension over time. On average, it took only six minutes of reading for participants to experience a significant decrease in stress symptoms. Personally, I enjoy keeping a book by my bed to work through, bit by bit, every night before I go to sleep. Not only is it nice to be absorbed into a story and forget about the stress of the day, reading is a more sleep-conducive activity than scrolling through Instagram or TikTok. According to Harvard Medical School, the blue light emitted by our phones, laptops, and tablets can seriously mess with our brain’s production of melatonin, a chemical necessary for sleep. But whatever the scientific evidence behind reading before bed may be, I definitely find myself drifting off faster when I’m reading than when I’m binging Netflix.
When asked if reading has helped with her anxiety, Ball responded “definitely.”
“I’ve been going back and reading books that I’ve already read and previously really enjoyed, which I think is partially a comfort thing. In this weird time, it’s nice to have that familiarity.”
Horsley agreed with Ball. “Books allow me to escape and relate; both of these can be freeing emotionally. When I’m reading more, it helps me put my own experiences and struggles in context.”
This isn’t merely an astute observation, it is one backed by further scientific evidence. According to Scientific American, a 2013 study by social psychologist Emanuele Castano explored the empathetic differences in subjects exposed to fiction literature. Compared to those who were given nonfiction materials, the subjects who were given literary fiction performed significantly better on a test designed to measure their ability to understand others’ feelings. David Kidd, a PhD candidate also involved in this study, explained that this result can be attributed to literary fiction’s use of characters.
“Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand over these big ideas,” Kidd said to Scientific American.
Despite these benefits, the unfortunate reality is that some people, especially students, seem to be averse to the idea of reading.
“I think there’s definitely a stigma around books and how reading is boring, especially with bigger books,” said Trevor Savage (‘21). “But I think it’s important for anyone to kind of find their
niche level of book… especially now because the amount of time we’re spending on our screens is ludicrously high, and that’s how most of my other relaxation mechanisms are, so I think reading’s extra important to step away from those screens.”
For many people, it’s difficult to sit down and stare at pieces of paper for hours on end, especially in the age of constant mental stimulation. There are no apps to click into or widgets to move around, only tiny text that seems to blur together as you find yourself disengaging. But the truth is, you don’t need to read for extended periods of time each day to reap benefits.
A study by Renaissance Learning in 2016 found that fifteen minutes of reading a day was the “magic number” for creating positive cognitive development. The students in the study that read for half an hour daily performed better still. Not only this, but as the age of the students increased, so did their margin of improvement. This may go against a preconceived notion that reading development is most dramatic in young children, but the 17-year-old participants in the study improved their reading scores by 30 points by reading almost every day, compared to an 18 point difference with nine-year-olds.
Even if reading fifteen minutes a day sounds like torture, the real trick is to find a book you love, maybe a nonfiction on a topic that fascinates you or a novel with a rollercoaster of a plot. For many students, their only association with reading is through dreary, school-assigned volumes. If that sounds like you, I implore you to do a little digging. There are so many different stories out in the world covering millions of topics, and there’s bound to be some that pique the interest of even the pickiest readers.
Reading isn’t a ball-and-chain process, either: if you don’t like what you’re reading for fun, you’re not obligated to finish it… this isn’t classwork! And reading has never been so accessible: some people opt to make use of their local libraries, like Smith, and some try out thrifted books, like Ball and Horsley. And while nothing can replace the feeling of holding a book in your hands, the internet presents a prolific selection of stories and is a fantastic resource for finding your next read. But regardless of where you look and what you find, I think you’ll be surprised at the ways in which reading can change your life for the better.