Why do we still read?
Holly Greenland, author, guest blogs for My Chronicle Book Box on why we still read books today.
Imagine an alien drops from above and finds themselves on earth (stick with me). They marvel as emoji conversations vibrate our phones into life, as Alexa calls to us from our kitchens and as our tablets sort and share millions of images and videos from around the globe every second.
But in a corner of the room, on a battered old armchair, they find someone curled up with a book, silently reading.
Imagine our little alien friend looking on in complete bewilderment and asking: with all this technology around them, what on earth are these hu-mans doing?
The written story in some form has been around for thousands of years.
People have perhaps been sharing stories orally since the earliest humans, but once they found a way to write them down, they did. The first written story on record is dated to around 2,600 BC.
Since then, and particularly in the last one hundred years, so much has changed about how we live our daily lives.
We invented the car, but we didn’t still keep our horse and carts out the back just in case. We invented email, but we didn’t continue to send telegrams just for the fun of it.
But even as movies, blogs and, dare I say it, TikTok has grown and we can communicate our ideas and stories to one another in more and more ways, reading, using these funny little black markers on a white page, still remains.
Escaping into a good book is still going strong.
In 2019 book sales were up 20% on figures from 2015 and even up 4% on 2018, which was one of the toughest years for book sales on record*.
And during lockdown, when digital has been such a lifeline for many, reading hasn’t just survived, it’s thrived.
The World Economic Forum reported UK fiction sales rose by a third in the final week of March as lockdown kicked in. A similar story played out in the US and across the world.
But as I put my phone on silent, close the door to the kids and open my current read, I’ve been wondering, why are we still drawn to books?
In a shout out to my connections, there were different reasons, personal to many; from the smell of the pages to the simple excuse for a moments silence.
But there was a common thread too, related to how it feels to read: ‘I have to engage my imagination in a way that I don’t when using other media,’ ‘You can escape into another world’, ‘It’s slower and requires the mind to imagine whole worlds, feelings and magic.’
And this one comment really sums it up: ‘Even if you are watching a film on your own, your mind wanders off. But with a good book you are there 100%, lost in your OWN imagination’.
We all instinctively know what it means to feel lost in a book, but why is that?
Here’s the science bit
IN 2018 Michigan State University professor Natalie Phillips and her collaborators researched for the first time how our brain reacts when we read.
And not just what it does when we see a word, or scan a screen, specifically how it reacts when we are in that deep, focused state of reading a book.
And what did they find? Well, first off, it is perhaps of little surprise to book lovers that parts of the brain associated with positive mood are activated when we focus our attention through reading. The brain’s response is comparable to mediation, and it actually seems to be good for our mood and state of mind, firing up our pleasure zones.
More surprisingly it was found that reading in a focused and engaged way seems to transform and light up a number of different regions in the brain that you may not immediately associate with reading, such as language or emotions. Areas were sparking to life that are associated with physical activity as well, including touch and movement.
The researchers think that when you read a story your brain is actually reacting as if you are in the story itself. You don’t just imagine you are racing through fields to escape the monster, or shivering in the cold while winter is coming. Your body reacts as if you are actually there.
With that in mind it’s perhaps easy to see why during lockdown reading has felt so important to many of us. Areas of the brain we may more commonly exercise when touching and hugging our friends and family and experiencing the real world have been underused for months. But they can still be accessed through escaping into a book.
When we read, we aren’t watching as an outsider as with a film, or participating as ourselves (even if it may be a fantasy version of ourselves) as on social media. With a book, we step right into that story, inside the character and get the opportunity to experience another world fully in the privacy of our own minds.
A welcome excuse to find time to read alone and undisturbed.
The research also seems to show that if you want the full experience, skimming the text or being interrupted by sticky hands or beeping phones just won’t cut it.
To light up those important areas of the brain, you need to find a quiet space for focused reading and sustained attention. Whether that’s in the bath with the lights down low, under a blanket in your favourite chair, or in the quiet of your bedroom when everyone else is asleep.
Hey, if science is telling me to do it, that’s enough for me.
Back to our little alien friend then.
So if I do ever cross paths with an alien visitor, at least now I’ll be able to explain the reason for our ancient practise of reading, that so many of us still find crucial to life today.
And as a parting gift I’ll be handing them a selection of our sacred texts (a classic Christie would be among my choices…) knowing it may be the best way to fully experience human life.
They can even visit us again by disappearing into the book on their own planet, just like we do.
Here’s to books now and forever!
Holly Greenland is a writer, communications strategist and Agatha Christie enthusiast. In 2020 she released her first novel, Murder on Maternity, following two new mums on the trail of a serial killer www.hollygreenland.com
For more information about some of the data and studies mentioned in this blog post, check out this Guardian article, information on the World Economics Forum and an analysis of professor Natalie Phillips’ work.