By PROF HEW GILL
To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.
If you’re able to understand these symbols, then you are using what is probably the most valuable of all human skills – the capacity to read.
This skill is as old as human history; before the invention of writing there was no recorded history, only frail memories.
It is the key to the world’s knowledge – the hallmark of civilisation and the means to education, yet in the lifetime of our species, it is a relatively recent invention that emerged only about 300 generations ago.
Through reading we can share the lives and inner thoughts of people across space and time; we can leave the present to walk with Gilgamesh, lament alongside Qu Yuan, or sail behind Hang Tuah.
Reading is a skill so basic that most of us take it for granted, never realising how precious a gift it truly is.
The fact that you are able to conjure sounds and meaning from the abstract symbols on the page would have placed you in the elite only 10 generations ago.
How many of us pause to consider how the scourge of illiteracy still blights the life chances of roughly one in six people on the planet?
So, if reading is so important, why is it that book sales around the world are declining? What, if anything, can we as individuals do about it?
The older you get, the less you read
It’s often said that as we get older we lose the habit of reading because we don’t have enough time. There are so many other things for us to do, or we simply don’t enjoy reading as a pastime.
Actually, there is some truth to these perceptions and the scientific evidence shows that in general, people do read less as they get older.
This may be one reason why book sales and reading rates across the world appear to be falling – in many countries, there is a demographic bulge of older people.
And if they are reading less as they age, then in absolute terms, the amount of reading being done must also be falling.
However, it’s also clear that the patterns of reading are changing and book sales may not be a good gauge to what’s actually happening.
This is because even older people are increasing the amount of time they spend reading on their mobile phone screens rather than from traditional print.
The convenience of mobile devices, the masses of user-generated online content, and the huge growth in other visual media make it almost inevitable that there will be a decline in the amount of time people devote to reading in the old-fashioned way, but does it matter?
Should we be concerned about the decline of reading?
Well, it comes as no surprise to learn that reading boosts literacy, but it might be less obvious that reading can also boost your wallet.
Across many decades, surveys of basic skills (like literacy and numeracy) in developing countries – as well as high income countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – have consistently shown that reading skills have a range of economic benefits for both individuals and the societies in which they live in.
These benefits directly translate into personal income, with higher levels of literacy being associated with better wages.
What’s even more interesting, according to the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), these economic effects are independent of formal education.
This means that individuals with high levels of literacy can earn more money than peers who have similar levels of education but lower levels of literacy.
The scientific evidence appears to be unambiguous: improving your literacy skills through reading can lift you to a higher income bracket.
Another surprising fact is that if you want to boost your literacy levels, the most effective approach is to start reading fiction books, because fiction is likely to expose you to a much wider range of vocabulary and ideas than factual books alone.
Alongside the financial benefits of good literacy, there is also plenty of evidence that reading can have a positive impact on general health, especially in later life.
Exercise your mind
Reading requires a lot of brainpower, not just to recognise the printed words, but also to co-ordinate hand and eye; focus attention; process and understand the words; access memory to make mental pictures; imagine, interpret, and then to form new memories and reinterpret previously stored information.
Even though many of these processes take place subconsciously, they still give many areas of the brain a thoroughly good ‘work out’.
And, there is actually abundant evidence to show that reading is good for the brain.
Sustaining a reading habit in mid to late life may also have much more direct benefits because it can help to protect us against dementia even if we have a higher than average genetic risk of developing the condition.
People with higher levels of literacy also appear to be happier.
There is some scientific evidence that poor literacy – associated with lower levels of reading – may be associated with adult depression.
Indeed, it seems that reading may be as important to maintaining health as what we eat so, a diet of good books may have as many health benefits as eating fruits and vegetables.
What are your distractors?
So, if reading has so many positive economic and health effects, how can we motivate ourselves to read more? What steps can we take to develop a healthy and sustainable reading habit?
Well fortunately for us, scientists Margaret Merga and Saiyidi Mat Roni recently published the results of their work looking at the characteristics of ‘avid readers,’ the social influences on readers, and the factors that motivate people to keep reading.
The good news is that people who read a lot are just like the rest of us and they don’t have any particular traits that make them different from the average person.
Like everybody else, they also struggle with time pressures and often find it difficult to get a quiet period for reading; but as with all activities, if they really want to read they make the time available.
Some readers have difficulty getting access to books, but for most people there are many affordable options available, and with access to public libraries it is relatively easy to overcome this constraint.
Indeed, it appears that readers who enjoy fiction are more likely to make use of a library and to borrow more books, even though non-fiction readers actually read the most books.
It may surprise you to know that even avid readers sometimes struggle to concentrate and focus on reading because they are distracted.
It is more difficult to read in a noisy public place than in the comfort of your own home, but an often-overlooked source of interruption is your mobile phone, even more so if you’re using your phone to read an e-book.
My colleague, Dr Yong Min Hooi and her student, Clarissa Theodora have recently completed a research showing that simply having a mobile phone on the table near you is enough to distract you and reduce the effectiveness of your memory.
This is because we frequently check our mobile phones for messages and every time our eyes flick over to the screen, we break our concentration – so, it takes time to refocus on what we were doing.
If you want to focus on reading – or any other task for that matter – put your mobile phone on silent, stop it from buzzing, and put it beyond reach.
The benefits of reading are manifold
It appears that our reading habits are also shaped by the people we know and what they think about reading as well as how reading can impact our relationships.
Most people associate reading with cleverness, so being known as someone who reads is likely to boost your status as an intellectual and may even make you more desirable to the opposite sex!
This effect may be greater than you think because most people find intelligence attractive and reading is likely to boost your vocabulary and general knowledge.
Reading also gives us things to talk about and this can make us more interesting and fun to be with.
Joining a reading club can also be a great way to widen your social circle and to improve your conversation skills as you chat about your most recent read with the group.
Ultimately, of course, reading is a personal choice and this is where individual motivation makes such a big difference.
Many people choose not to read because they incorrectly believe that it is boring or even difficult, but as with any skill, the more you do it the better you become.
Many readers also find that reading can be a great form of relaxation because it entertains and holds our attention so that the stresses and strains of everyday life fade away.
Many readers have books that are as familiar as old friends and they return to the same books again and again, immersing themselves in the story – perhaps one reason why reading is so good for our mental health.
Reading is also a great way to acquire new knowledge about pretty much anything, from skills that may make us better partners or parents, or facts to help us be more successful at work, to discovering our true selves.
Many keen readers are motivated by the opportunity that fiction gives them to learn about how other people feel and think, and to compare themselves and how they would respond to the situations in stories.
This type of perspective-taking can be a valuable form of personal development and can help us to prepare for and deal with many different challenges in life.
Bringing it together
Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, it is impossible for any of us to directly experience everything that makes a complete human, so good fiction shows us how to be better people through the stories of others and great literature provides a manual for the soul.
Any of these pleasures and benefits can help you to make reading a regular habit and any one of them could lead you to the book that may change your life.
So, now that you’ve finished reading this article, why not read a book?