Never underestimate the power of a good book. Here’s how you can get more from your reading – plus a fascinating trip down memory lane as we turn back a few chapters…
WHY IS READING SO GOOD FOR US?
Reading for pleasure has numerous health benefits, says Dr Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy ( DOCTORFOX. CO.UK). “These include reducing stress (even if you read for just six minutes a day), improving life expectancy, reasoning skills, vocabulary, concentration, critical thinking and enhancing empathy and emotional intelligence. In fact, some experts say reading ‘works’ the brain in the same way that exercise works the body.”
And that’s not all. “As a form of mindfulness, engaging with a story means disconnecting from your own worries and becoming connected with a host of new characters. A plot’s twists and turns help you relate to the outside world – while understanding the characters, and their behaviour, benefits your own personal interactions. Finally, becoming embroiled in a story sharpens your mind and helps formulate your own views and opinions so you start to see things from other people’s perspectives. Reading teaches us warmth, empathy and humility.”
Chartered psychologist Dr Meg Arroll ( DRMEGARROLL.COM ) and author of forthcoming book TinyTraumas, agrees. “Reading helps us process emotions – both positive and negative. All emotions are beneficial. But sometimes, in daily life, we tend to try and distract ourselves from some of the more challenging ones. Becoming immersed in a story allows us time and space to understand our emotional experience in relation to characters.”
HAVEN’T WE DONE WELL?
We’ve come a long way in terms of reading ability. Just over 200 years ago, a staggering 60% of women and 40% of men in England and Wales were illiterate. By 1900 this figure was just 3%. It had a huge impact in everything from letter-writing (people were no longer limited to local relationships), to better jobs and more interest in politics. Today the illiteracy rate is just one per cent. Statistics show 34% of over-55s read at least once a day, compared to just 7% of 18 to 24-year-olds – with women, in particular, leading the way.
WHEN SHOPS WERE LIBRARIES….
Today, Boots and WH Smith are ttypical High Street shops. But bback at the end of the 19th CCentury they blazed a trail in bbooklending – encouraging us all, women in particular, to read more. (Who can forget BriefEncounter’s Celia Johnson popping into Boots to change her library book?) The Boots Booklovers Library service was born in the late 1890s – the brainchild of Florence Boot, who married into the family – while William Henry Smith launched his own library service via his book stalls on railway stations. Travellers could borrow a book at the start of their jjourney and return it to another stall at the end. Today, state libraries continue to be popular, issuing almost 165 million books a year.
PAPER OR SCREENS?
Paperback is still king when it comes to modern reading habits. According to government figures, six in 10 (60%) Britons typically read paperback books, with another 47% opting for hardbacks. E-books come in third at 24%, ahead of audio books at 8%. Author Cerrie Burnell, former writer in residence for UK reading charity BookTrust, says, “We all know that glorious feeling of clutching a book in our hands. Whether it’s a gift, something borrowed from a fabulous library, or perhaps a family treasure creased from re-reading... there is a specialness that comes from holding a story and knowing you can step in or out of it, whenever you wish.”
KEEPING SPIRITS HIGH IN HARD TIMES….
“Books were a key weapon during the Blitz,” says Kate Thompson, author of TheLittleWartime Library (Hodder and Stoughton £7.99), a novel based on the true story of an underground library that thrived during the Second World War. “Reading really did keep people going. Just one month after the outbreak of war, a leading librarian predicted, ‘Quantities of cheap fiction will be required... The soldier will carry a book in his kitbag, the civilian will keep books for his fireside, the child will learn the delights of literature. We are a nation of readers, and the war is only going to increase the demand for books.’
“That librarian was right. Borrowing rates soared to never before seen levels. The Mayor of London, on launching London’s first travelling library van, commented, “People without books are like houses without windows.”
We saw a similar effect during the global Covid pandemic. According to the Reading Agency, a quarter of UK adults started reading more during lockdowns – and many have maintained these habits.
FREE BOOKS ‘ON PRESCRIPTION’
Reading Well – an innovative “Bibliotherapy” initiative launched by the Reading Agency and supported by charities and public bodies – encourages people to use books to understand and manage their health and wellbeing. Titles have been recommended by health professionals and people living with the conditions – with more than three million books borrowed since 2013. Need a lift? Have a look at Reading Well’s Mood Boosting list of titles – all recommended by readers and book clubs. For details see
READING-WELL.ORG.UK or ask at your local library.