The Benefits of Leading a Bookish Life in 2020

This post on the benefits of a literary life is sponsored by Flatiron Books, Publisher of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins.

También de este lado hay sueños. On this side too, there are dreams. Lydia Quixano Pérez runs a bookstore in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She has a son, Luca, and by and large, they live a fairly comfortable life. But when Lydia’s wonderful journalist husband publishes a tell-all profile of Javier, the jefe of the newest drug cartel, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca are forced to flee. None of their lives will ever be the same as they join the countless people trying to reach el norte. Everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

I was an earnest elementary school student and loved reading and being read to. Libraries were then and remain the most sacred of spaces.

From the children’s library at Overland Avenue Elementary School, I had gone to England, where I shared the experiences of a young and impoverished English boy who wins a golden ticket to tour a fabled chocolate factory (or, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory); I traveled around the world when I read the Amelia Earhart biographies; and I experienced time-warps and tesseracts with Meg Murry in A Wrinkle In Time.

Several decades later, I realized this earnest elementary school student remains with me whenever I finish a book and then think, where shall I go next? It is one of the delights of the reading life: that brief moment between books when you consider all the upcoming delicious rewards that await you from all the books you will be reading next.

However, it has been a pleasure to discover that there are healthy rewards of leading the bookish life. Reading places our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and brings similar benefits to those of deep relaxation and inner calm. Readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression that non-readers.

Further studies on the benefits of reading came with the 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology. The study used the fMRI brain scans of their participants and established that when people read about an experience, the stimulation displayed within their neurological regions proved the same as if they were actually living through the experience.

An influential 2013 study published in Scientific American established the fact that reading literary fiction improved the participants’ results on tests that measured social perception and empathy, attributes that are crucial to the “theory of mind”: the ability to accurately guess what another human being might be thinking or feeling. Readers, therefore, tend to be more empathetic, less judgmental, and more diverse in their understanding of the world—an open mind.

Keith Oatley,  novelist and emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, has long conducted a research group focusing on the psychology of fiction. “We have started to show how identification with fictional characters occurs, how literary art can improve social abilities, how it can move us emotionally, and can prompt changes of selfhood,” Oatley stated in his 2011 book, Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction.

Reading often brings one to a state of transcendence: a transitory state of being when you experience a complete loss of self as you connect with another’s mind.

Writer Jeannette Winterson has described how reading rewards the reader: “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.” Stories help us realize we are not alone; stories have the power to help us believe we can survive whatever life throws upon us.

And, the enthusiasm for books does not appear to be declining. In 2018, paper book sales continued to rise for the fifth year and despite Amazon’s looming presence, independent book stores continued to open.

These revelations are all good news for bibliophiles who know that being a reader is the magical part of their destiny. It is the only way to journey through life.