Reading is scienti � ically proven to strengthen your mind— and may also increase happiness. Make it a priority with these strategies.
Watson (it has 215,765 members and counting). So far, they’ve read titles like The Color Purple, by Alice Walker; Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay; and How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran.
For good recommendations without a commitment (and to delve into genres you’re not normally drawn to), explore what Lucas calls “the book ternet,” and find blogs like parnassusmusing.net, from Nashville’s Parnassus Books owners Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes; brainpickings.org, by Maria Popova; and lithub.com, created by Grove Atlantic and Elect ric Literature. The site themillions.com previews noteworthy releases and does monthly top-10 lists. And podcasts such as Book Riot and What Should I Read Next? feature lively literary discussions. Or tune into The Great American Read, an eight-part PBS series in which evangelists including author Margaret Atwood, actress Lauren Graham, and Game of Thrones writer George R. R. Martin discuss beloved novels and invite viewers to vote for their favorite at pbs .org/the-great-american-read. (The winner will be announced on October 23.) Then pay it forward—and become the book whisp erer in your circle—by sharing your picks on social media (see Share Your Favorites, below) or goodreads.com, a site that lets you track what you’ve read on a virtual shelf, upload reviews, and corresp ond with other bookworms. (Kids can log onto biblionasium.com, a similar community for children.)
Revisit the library Supporting indie bookstores is always worthy, but for an endless feast of free reads, head to your local temple of literature, the public library. Even more instantly gratifying: Download the e-reader app Libby, which lets you link multiple library cards and borrow both audiobooks and e-books (which you can enjoy on your smartphone or Kindle). Now, rather than scrolling past another food pic or celebrity selfie while on the move, you can be with Mrs. Dalloway as she buys the flowers herself. Another effortless idea: Do regular swaps with friends and coworkers to keep your reading momentum going.
To expand this idea to your neighborhood, start a Little Free Library, which is just what it sounds like: a cute, durable, freest anding box of books for the borrowing, marked with the motto “Take a Book, Leave a Book.” Todd H. Bol built the first one in Wisconsin in 2009, to honor his late mother. Today there are almost 75,000 of them in more than 85 countries. “We’re at over 50 million books a year, which makes us as big as the New York Public Library system and the Library of Congress combined,” says Bol. Find one near you at littlefreelibrary.org, or create your own by buying a kit or repurposing a roomy birdhouse or small shed and registering on the site.
And if you’re a fan of subscription services—think Stitch Fix or Birchbox—consider the Book of the Month Club (tagline: “Read. Love. Repeat.”), which is 92 years old but thoroughly modern. It cost s about the price of a paperback per month, and members get to select from five recently published, smartly curated titles.
Leap off the page . . . and into your community. Through an initiative called the NEA Big Read, the National
Endowment for the Arts supports 75 groups across the country that implement community programs based on a shared book, such as st aging a show inspired by a novel, or hosting an author for a lect ure. To apply for a grant, rally your township, school dist rict, library, or local nonprofit to come up with a book and corresponding project, and fill out the application. (For a list of book select ions, along with discussion questions, go to arts.gov/national-initiatives/ nea-big-read.)
Similarly, the Little Free Library helps individuals launch “act ion book clubs,” for which you select titles that link to a communityservice project. For a recent theme, “Everyday Heroes,” suggest ions included Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin; and The Stars Are Fire, by Anita Shreve, along with projects such as planting a community garden and donating to the local food bank. The current theme is “Come Together,” and the organization’s list includes There, There, by Tommy Orange, for adults; and The Harlem Charade, by Natasha Tarpley, for kids.
Fall into fiction We love biographies and historical tomes as much as the next autodidact. But novels— particularly literary fict ion, which delves deep into a character’s thoughts and motivations—serve a unique purpose: They require us to think about what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. “Reading novels exercises a part of your brain called the default-mode network, which deteriorates in cases of Alzheimer’s disease and other mental-health disorders,” says John Hutton, M.D., an assistant professor at the Reading & Literacy Discovery Center of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “That network is activated when you use your imagination to bring a story to life.” Additionally, a 2013 University of Toronto st udy showed that short-story readers could be more creative and open-minded than participants who read nonfiction essays. And researchers at the New School in New York City found that after reading literary fiction, st udy participants scored higher on a test that required them to infer other people’s mental states than those who read pop fiction or nonfiction did. All of which points to the notion that empathy is a muscle you need to actively keep strong and flexible. Imagine how much kinder the world might be if everyone read fict ion.
NURTURE LITTLE MINDS
Begin at birth The most critical years for brain development are from 0 to 3 years old. Reading aloud to children from infancy not only helps them develop language and early-literacy skills; it’s another kind of cuddle time that comforts them by engaging their minds and their imaginations. Recognizing this, in 1989 two pediatricians at Boston Medical Center launched Reach Out and Read, which provides books (like Margaret Wise Brown’s classic Goodnight Moon and John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beauti
ful Daughters) to doctors, who then give them to parents, st arting at newborns’ checkups, along with a prescription to read together. Today, the organization is nationwide and has given 7.2 million books to 4.7 million children. “Reach Out and Read used to start at the 6-month visit,” says Leora Mogilner, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City, who has been involved with the program for more than 20 years. “As more and more research has come out about the impact
that a child’s early environment has on the brain and emotional development, we realized that we needed to start sooner.”
Mogilner says the pract ice should evolve with your baby. “With infants, let them hold the book, chew on it,” she says. “Point things out, label things; that’s how children associate pict ures with words and learn vocabulary. Have toddlers choose the book—it’s a tool you can give them to have control over their environment. Ask questions: Where is the dog, where is the cat? Use the book to generate conversation and foster curiosity— it could be a window into a world that children may not have access to.”
If you don’t have kids, or yours are grown up, make a difference by signing up to be a reader at select pediatric clinics, or collect ing books to donate to waiting rooms through Reach Out and Read. More great resources: Reading Partners and AARP Foundation’s Experience Corps both train volunteers to help tutor children with reading in schools.
Fill their world with books Whether they’re your own or borrowed from the library, their mere presence in the home can work wonders. A 2010 University of Nevada st udy showed that having a large collect ion has a greater effect on the level of education a child will attain than whether her parents are rich or poor, university grads or high school dropouts. As few as 20 can make an impact, says st udy leader and professor Mariah Evans. Also, listen to familyfriendly audiobooks in the car, take kids to age-appropriate author readings, and continue reading aloud to older kids as a comforting ritual. In December, adopt the Icelandic Christ mas tradition of Jólabókaflóð: giving family members books as presents.
But simplest of all, be the reader you want your children to be. Let them see you get as excited about turning a page as you are about turning on the TV, because “children who grow up in households where reading is modeled and valued are going to want to read as well,” says Hutton, who is also spokesdoctor for Read Aloud 15 Minutes, a campaign founded by Cincinnati-based pharmacist Candace Kendle.
Spread the word In cities across the country, the National Book Foundation is working to get books into the hands of low-income kids and families. Its Book Rich Environments initiative dist ributes free volumes, donated by publishers to public-housing authorities, who then give them out at housing units, libraries, and community centers so all children can lose themselves in a story. And the foundation’s BookUp program hires authors to lead afterschool reading groups and bring middle-schoolers on field trips to libraries and stores, even giving them a stipend to fill up their own shelves at home. A donation of $100 will buy a semester’s worth of books (about 12 titles) for a child’s personal collect ion; go to nationalbook .org for more information.
“We’re not a literacy program per se,” says Lucas about BookUp. “We’re focusing on the access and the joy part. It’s about saying, ‘This is a beautiful object that contains a story that relates to me, and I know that I can find within the covers of a book more stories throughout my life that will teach me and delight me and carry me.’” And once that passion is ignited, she adds, it’s infectious. “Every reader brings more with her.”