Reading is one of the greatest ways of spending time.
Okay, so I’m biased. I’ve always loved reading, and now that I’m writing seriously, I’m continually being reminded of the joys of reading. But I’m also learning more about the importance of reading.
I don’t meant the importance of being able to read. Of course it’s important to be able to decode written language. Without reading skills, we would be unable to understand instructions or warning messages, and our communication with others would be limited. Where once reading was the reserve of the wealthy educated, today being unable to read is something that causes shame.
But there’s more to reading than simply understanding the words. Reading is an active pursuit—when we read, we decipher lines to discover the words, and then we analyse the flow of those words to uncover meaning. Reading is a journey, and we have to partake in it. The words mark a course, and we, the reader, have to put in the leg-work to reach the destination.
Maybe this is why other forms of story entertainment hold a greater pull. TV and films can be experienced far more passively, social media (in which our ‘friends’ contribute to stories played out in real time) plays out in smaller chunks that are easily digestible. Gaming is active, but in a different way to reading—the immersive element does not rely on our own imagination so much.
Yet reading is still incredibly popular, and I think this is fantastic. I believe that reading is not only enjoyable, but also incredibly important.
I posted recently about an episode of The Allusionist podcast that highlighted the mental health benefits of reading, but this is only one facet. Reading does so many things for us as readers.
Over the next few posts, I want to explore some of the reasons why I believe reading is so important.
I could have put all these reasons in one post. I could have come up with a list, or a series of images or something. But I’m going to take my time over this. I want to take things slowly.
And that dovetails nicely into my first reason:
Reading gives us the opportunity to slow down.
Most people’s lives are hectic. Technology is wonderful, but it’s a double-edges sword. When technology started changing the way people worked, there were those who anticipated a time when a single person could do the work of twenty others, and in a fraction of the time. They envisaged a world where work took a few hours a day, and then we lived a life of luxury.
Yeah, right! Technology enables us to do more, and so our bosses—and their bosses, and so on—expect more out of us. We work long hours—yes, we can get far more done with technology, but so can everyone else. To stay ahead, we have to do even more.
And when we get home, there’s the constant bombardment of stimuli.
I can remember when there were three channels to choose from on TV, and they all shut down late at night. We had one television in the house—if you didn’t want to watch what others did, you went off to do something else.
Now, we have countless channels. Then there are subscription on-demand services. We have access to instant videos on YouTube. We have social media. We have real-time video communication. We’re inundated with messages.
If this is all too much, we do have the option of turning all our devices off, but this is hard for many to do—there’s always the fear of missing something ‘important’. And even if we do manage a digital detox, we can’t escape unless we hide in our own homes. Adverts bombard us in the high street, and music calls to us. Some adverts play videos, which are even more eye-catching. Everywhere we turn, there are images and voices scrambling for our attention.
I don’t think constant stimulation like this is healthy. We need time to slow down. However much we enjoy (and get a thrill from) this, we all benefit from moments of calm.
Reading can give us that time.
It demands long periods of our attention, away from distractions. This might mean finding a quiet spot at home, or it might mean training ourselves to ignore the clamour around us (for instance, shutting off from the bustle of the morning commute).
Then, we need to give time up for reading. Rather than blasting through thirty-second videos, or flicking between different social media accounts, reading requires concerted effort over a number of minutes, maybe even hours.
And as we read, we are drawn into the story (or the journey of discovery if we are reading non-fiction). The noise around us fades away as the words take over. We step out of time and enter a new world. Our bodies rest as our imagination takes us to other places.
Reading enables us not only to slow down, but to disengage, to escape the rush of our lives. Reading gives us moments of calm. It can help us sleep—many studies have highlighted how good sleep is easier to achieve after winding down, and that staring at screens keeps our minds too active. It can give us the opportunity to take a breath and unwind.
But this is only one reason why reading is important. I’ll comment on more reasons later. Until then, enjoy the calm that reading can bring.