Americans are reading fewer books than ever, but you can stand out from the crowd (and reap major benefits) by creating a regular reading habit. Here’s why reading is important.
While the avid readers among us may be eagerly making their way through our recently released summer reading list and our most anticipated books of 2022, most Americans don’t have their noses stuck in a book. And that’s a shame. Why is reading important? Studies have shown that a regular reading habit not only sharpens vocabulary and improves IQ but also reduces the brain’s rate of decline in old age and expands “EQ”—emotional intelligence and well-being.
Those are all good reasons to establish early reading habits in children and nurture them well into adulthood. But according to a recent Gallup survey, reading is on the decline. American adults read (either all or part of the way) an average of 12.6 books during the past year, fewer than any year since the firm began asking the question in 1990. Perhaps most striking, however, is the fact that the decline is greater in groups that have historically been among the biggest readers: college graduates, women and older Americans.
In positive news, while the number of books Americans are reading is trending down, the survey found that the percentage of American adults who are reading has remained steady since 2002. If you don’t count yourself in that group, don’t stress. It’s never too late to adopt a reading habit that’ll broaden your mind and enrich your life. Whether you’re studiously making your way through the best books of all time or just taking 20 minutes a day to read the latest bestselling mystery novel, the benefits of being one of America’s bookworms are boundless.
Why is reading important?
The simple act of reading has a lasting effect on the brain. And no, we’re not talking about the way you might think about the characters of your favorite historical fiction novel long after you flip the last page.
Reading actually changes your brain. In a small study published in Brain Connectivityresearchers from Emory University asked participants to read the novel pompeii by Robert Harris, which brings a historical setting to life. Each evening, they read part of the book, and each morning, they arrived at the research center for a brain scan. For the nine days they spent reading and the five days thereafter, the part of their brains associated with language showed heightened connectivity.
That’s expected. We know that reading improves IQ and vocabulary. But here’s where it gets interesting: Those same scans showed heightened activity in a part of the brain responsible for physical sensation. In short, as the researchers write, “it is plausible that the act of reading a novel places the reader in the body of the protagonist.”
Yep, reading can make your body think you actually went to Pompeii—or any of the thousands of lands available in literature.
But the benefits of reading every day go beyond that. Opening a book can improve your mental and physical health.
Improving mental health
Reading is correlated with decreased stress, and a report published in the journal Science found that it can increase empathy. Books put you inside the minds of fictional people, and that can help you better understand the minds of real people.
Maryanne Wolf, director of the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice and author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, says that’s particularly true if you’re reading print books. She draws a distinction between the kind of skim reading that happens naturally when we take it in digital versus print media.
“In immersive reading, we pass over from our viewpoint into the perspective of others,” she says. “That takes milliseconds in the brain, but it gives us the beautiful potential of leaving our little silos to enter those of others, which leads to empathy. This is being short-circuited by skimming.”
Keeping the mind sharp
Why is reading important as we age? According to a study published in neurologyit can lead to healthier cognitive function in old age, even staving off Alzheimer’s disease.
“The brain is an organ just like every other organ in the body. It ages in regard to how it is used,” Robert P. Friedland, author of a study on the connection between intellectual hobbies, such as reading and solving puzzles, and a lowered risk of Alzheimer’s disease, told USAToday. “Just as physical activity strengthens the heart, muscles and bones, intellectual activity strengthens the brain against disease.”
Helping you live longer
Best of all, you don’t have to dedicate entire days to reading to reap the benefits. In a 2016 study, researchers found that people who read for an average of 30 minutes daily (about 20 pages, or a few chapters) lived longer. In fact, bookworms had a 20% lower risk of early death after 12 years than non-readers.
How many books does the average American read?
Americans are reading fewer books now than they have in the past, with the most significant downtrends among those who were previously counted as the most avid readers: adults ages 55 and up, college graduates and women.
Between 2002 and 2016, women reported reading an average of almost twice as many books per year as men (19.3 compared with 10.8). In the 2021 survey, those numbers dropped to 15.7 books per year for women and 9.5 per year for men.
College graduates—the biggest bookworms of those polled—previously read an average of 21.1 books a year. Now, they report reading an average of only 14.6 books each year.
Overall, the 2021 survey shows that younger people (age 18 to 34) read the most of any age demographic. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Younger generations practically live on social media platforms like TikTok, where literary trends have been known to take off. The platform is one of the reasons Colleen Hoover’s books have been on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks and dark academia books are in the spotlight.
Considering that Americans on the whole read about 12.6 books a year, you don’t need to finish a library’s worth of books to beat the average. Get through two books a month, and you can get ahead of the crowd and reap those great IQ- and vocabulary-boosting benefits, plus all the other perks that come with reading.
How can you read more books?
If you want to join the ranks of the bookworms benefiting from frequent reading, you’re in luck. It’s not hard to do.
But before you attempt to lock down a reading habit, be sure you can answer this key question: Why is reading important? From expanding your perspective (say, by diving into autobiographies of people whose lives are unlike your own or reading a book about racism) to sharpening your mind (like with nonfiction books that educate and entertain), the benefits can fill a list pages long. Plus, reading is just plain fun, and there’s nothing wrong with picking a book just for the joy of it.
When you’re aware of the perks of reading, you’ll be inspired to start a practice and stick with it. There are simple ways you can incorporate healthy and voracious reading habits into your life, such as making a point to read for at least 30 minutes before bed.
There are a couple more tricks to creating a reading habit, including engaging in deep reading and picking a book that’ll bring you joy.
While reading a Kindle Unlimited book or listening to audiobooks during your subway ride to work can be an easy solution on the go, to get the most out of your daily reading experience, experts recommend reaching for a physical book and taking the time to deeply engage with it.
“Audiobooks have a very important role to play—they help people—but they do not demand nor allow for the deeper understanding monitoring,” says Wolf. “Same thing with the screen. You don’t monitor what you just read or just heard, and you miss things.”
This doesn’t mean you need to lug a copy of War and Peace on your commute; you can tuck a short book into your bag for your trip into work. But regardless of the book, the point is to engage in deep reading, Wolf’s term for a type of close reading that requires engagement, reasoning and reflection. So skip the skimming, which won’t give you the sort of reading comprehension you need to develop reading circuits in the mind.
“The second major disadvantage to skimming is that you don’t give time to critical analysis,” Wolf says. “You get the gist, but you do not get the full density or complexity of arguments. You aren’t checking for truth.”
How can you cultivate this practice and reap the benefits, on your own? One technique is known as RIDA: read, imagine the scene, describe it to yourself and add more mental detail by noting imagery or passages that strike you.
Or give this nifty trick a try: Listen to the audiobook while simultaneously reading along from the print book. Doing this will focus your senses on the act of reading and totally immerse you in the story.
Reading for pleasure
Admittedly, it can be difficult to get into, or back into, the habit of reading—for both newcomers to the hobby and former bookworms alike. Even Wolf has found her ability to read deeply atrophying from disuse. When she returned to an old favorite, Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead, she found she could barely make it through the process. “My system was not willing to slow down enough to really grapple with that novel,” she says.
Determined to regain her understanding, she set aside 20 minutes every evening, telling herself, “Just give the 20 minutes your full attention. Here’s a magic word: full attention,” she says. “And that’s when I started returning to the reader I had been. It took me two weeks to slow myself down. I had to retrain my brain.”
Taking the time to shake your brain out of internet-reading mode is key. ”It’s all about taking time and giving time, otherwise your brain is going to be on screen mode and you are really not going to enjoy reading the way you once did,” Wolf says. “Who is going to read as much anymore when the enjoyment, which they do not realize has gone missing, is missing?”
Another tip: If you’re finding yourself struggling to stick with a book, consider what you’re reading.
Maybe you’ve picked up a dense classic novel but aren’t really enjoying it. Intellectual fiction is great, but if it’ll get you reading again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with reaching for a book that promises pure entertainment. So go ahead and pick a pleasure read, whether that’s a romance novel, beach read or juicy vampire book.
Start your reading journey