My favorite book is War and Peace.
And I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, another writer wanting people to think he’s all intellectual and highbrow.”
But it really is my favorite book, only not because it has 1,500 pages of unforgettable characters or a generational plot that is more compelling than that of any other book I’ve read. It’s because right before I started reading it, my life was in a rut. I had recently been passed over for a promotion at Apple and I had just been rejected by a graduate school I applied to. This double whammy left me doubting myself, my abilities, and my future. So when I came across the massive tome that is War and Peace, I thought, “Why not? I’m not doing anything else.”
Two months later, I finished the book and immediately knew I had a new “favorite.” But it wasn’t my new favorite book just because it was so compelling. It was my new favorite because it changed something in me. It’s almost impossible to explain why, but after reading it I felt more confident in myself, less uncertain about my future. I became more assertive with my bosses. I got back on the horse, so to speak, and applied to three more graduate schools. I attended three interviews and got accepted to all three schools (without mentioning War and Peace at all). As weird as it sounds, reading War and Peace put me back in control of my life—and that’s why it’s my favorite book.
But according to Dr Josie Billington, deputy director of the Centre for Research into Reading at the University of Liverpool, my experience wasn’t so odd. It’s actually the norm for people who read a lot—and one of the main benefits of reading that most people don’t know about.
“Reading can offer richer, broader, and more complex models of experience, which enable people to view their own lives from a refreshed perspective and with renewed understanding,” says Billington. This renewed understanding gives readers a greater ability to cope with difficult situations by expanding their “repertoires and sense of possible avenues of action or attitude.”
And those possible avenues of action don’t have to mimic those in the book. After all, I had no interest in learning the best ways to fend off a French invasion, even though that was a major part of the story in War and Peace. Rather it was in reading about the challenges the dozens of characters in War and Peace faced that I learned to look at my life’s challenges from a renewed perspective.
“People who read find it easier to make decisions, plan, and prioritize, and this may be because they are more able to recognize that difficulty and setback are unavoidable aspects of human life,” says Billington—and astonishingly these aren’t the only hidden benefits of reading regularly that researchers are now discovering.
If the standard benefits of reading, which include knowledge absorption and entertainment, were only complemented by the additional benefits of the ability to refocus, regroup, and make better decisions, it would be enough to argue that everyone should read for their own good. But according to Billington and Sue Wilkinson, the CEO of The Reading Agency, a UK charity that develops and delivers programs to encourage people to read more, experts are now discovering reading has numerous additional benefits to physical and psychological health.
“Reading for pleasure in general can also help prevent conditions such as stress, depression, and dementia,” says Wilkinson. “Research has shown that people who read for pleasure regularly report fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers. Large scale studies in the U.S. show that being more engaged with reading, along with other hobbies, is associated with a lower subsequent risk of incidents of dementia.”
Wilkinson also notes that people who read books regularly “are on average more satisfied with life, happier, and more likely to feel that the things they do in life are worthwhile.” A recent survey of 1,500 adult readers found that 76% of them said that reading improves their life and helps to make them feel good.
And despite reading generally being considered a solitary experience, research has shown that reading has benefits for society at large—beyond helping create more educated people. Wilkinson points out that it’s been proven that reading improves empathy and increases social support.
“Reading has huge power to make you see things from another person’s point of view,” says Wilkinson, citing research that shows that reading reduces stress and creates neurological changes in the brain that makes it think you’re in another world—or another life. “Reading about people different to you, for example who come from another culture or background, can help you understand their perspective and readdress former prejudices.”
Billington agrees. “In addition to enhancing willingness and ability to communicate with others, reading helps promote respect for and tolerance of others’ views,” she says. “Readers have a stronger and more engaged awareness of social issues and of cultural diversity than non-readers: their template of what the world is, is widened, and their place within it feels more secure.”
Yet despite all the benefits to mind, body, and society, plenty of people find it hard to sit down and start reading. It seems like we just don’t have the time to read more. We have work and family commitments; we have smartphone pings and social media mentions to respond to. But both Billington and Wilkinson say you can become a more committed reader—and reap the major benefits of reading—without putting your life on hold and locking yourself in a library. Here’s how:
There’s much to be said for reading the greats like Tolstoy, Hemingway, and Proust, but Wilkinson stresses that the benefits of reading aren’t limited to the great literary works.
“All reading is good, and enjoying whatever you are reading is the most important thing,” says Wilkinson, who notes that The Reading Agency’s Reading Ahead program for adults operates on this principle: it’s the act of reading that is most important—not what you read.
“You can read magazines, website articles, cookery books, or children’s books—anything that helps you practice reading, as long as you enjoy it. Being too prescriptive about what you can read will only stop you taking up the habit.”
Billington notes that two-fifths of people in the latest Quick Reads study cited “lack of time” as their chief barrier to reading. Yet the same study found that adults who read for just 30 minutes a week reported feeling 20% more satisfied with their lives.
“So it is worthwhile making just a few minutes time in a day for reading, it seems: when waiting for a bus, or for children outside school, or on the train, think twice before social messaging and pick up a book instead,” says Billington.
Wilkinson suggests those with limited time browse Quick Reads, which offers “short books, written by well-known authors and designed to be read quickly so you can read them on your commute or just when you have a short break.”
Once you’ve started making the time to read more, Wilkinson says the next step is to set challenges to keep yourself motivated. If you normally read fiction, for example, try switching it up with non-fiction. This keeps things new and fresh, which means you’re both more likely to continue reading and more likely to find new favorite authors and subjects, which perpetuates the drive to keep reading.
“We use challenges a lot in our work, because they give you something tangible to aim for and a sense of achievement once you’ve completed them. It can help you develop your skills, or help you discover something new,” says Wilkinson, who notes that her Reading Ahead program uses this to great effect in workplaces, prisons, libraries, and colleges. The program asks participants to read six books to get a certificate at the end. “The achievable goal, and the certificate, help people find the time and motivation to read.”
Both Wilkinson and Billington agree that it’s very important not to continue forcing yourself to read something you aren’t enjoying.
“The late great Doris Lessing was right to say that you should never continue with a book you’re not enjoying—as though it’s a betrayal of the shared human experience that the book, and reading, is really for, to carry on out of ‘duty,’” says Billington. “One of the blessings of reading is that it is an individual thing, and books offer different things to different people or to the same person at different stages of life.”
That’s not to say you should be prepared to give up too soon, however. “If you’re returning to reading after a long time, or finding it for the first time, it can be difficult to believe you can see the whole thing through, and some books take a while to do their work inside us,” say Billington.
“I give any book 100 pages and any article a couple of paragraphs; if they haven’t grabbed me after that, then I think it’s OK to put it down and move on,” says Wilkinson, who agrees that you don’t have to get stuck with a book you are not enjoying. “You have ‘permission’ to stop, and the freedom to explore and choose other things to read.”
And as the research now shows us, it’s those that choose to continue reading that benefit from the act in more ways than previously thought possible.