In this age of tweeting and scrolling through feed, reading for pleasure has never been more important for our well-being. Yet nearly a quarter of Americans didn’t crack a book last year. Here's how to make reading a daily practice that you—and your brain—will love.
A richer vocabulary, a deeper understanding of others, and a longer life span (by nearly two more years, according to a 2016 Yale School of Public Health study) are all at your fingertips if you do one simple thing: read a book for at least 30 minutes a day. The habit has also been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, make us feel part of a community, and help stave off dementia.
For children, the rewards are even greater: A 2013 British study found that reading for pleasure has more impact on the cognitive development of adolescents than their parents’ level of education. And for humans of every age, it offers an instant escape, opening doors to faraway worlds and experiences. But here’s the most surprising fact of all: 24 percent of Americans didn’t read a single book last year.
As science continues to illuminate the power of reading, a handful of organizations and resources are making it easier to discover wonderful books, access them instantly, and spread the word to your friends—as well as foster that same passion in your kids.
Nurture Your Mind
Redirect some time
For starters, replace clickbait with an engrossing thriller—or memoir, or whatever lights up your neurons—while you commute, stand in line, or wind down at bedtime. You’ll be polishing off a book a week, and feeling positive results, in no time.
Join a club
“Reading is a solitary enterprise, but it can also be collaborative,” says Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, in New York City. When you’ve finished a book you love, “you talk about it; you tweet about it.” To be a part of that buzz, become a member of a book club at a local library or bookstore, or a digital one such as Our Shared Shelf, the feminist group started in 2016 by actress and United Nations representative Emma 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 bookternet,” 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 Electric 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 which returns on September 11, 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 whisperer 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 correspond 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 audio- books 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, freestanding 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 costs 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 staging a show inspired by a novel, or hosting an author for a lecture. To apply for a grant, rally your township, school district, library, or local nonprofit to come up with a book and corresponding project, and fill out the application. (For a list of book selections, along with discussion questions, go to arts.gov/national-initiatives/ nea-big-read.)
Similarly, the Little Free Library helps individuals launch “action book clubs,” for which you select titles that link to a communityservice project. For a recent theme, “Everyday Heroes,” suggestions 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 fiction, 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 study 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, study 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 fiction.
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 Beautiful Daughters) to doctors, who then give them to parents, starting 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 practice 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 pictures 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 collecting 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 study showed that having a large collection 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 study leader and professor Mariah Evans. Also, listen to family-friendly 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 Christmas 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 distributes 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 collection; 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.”
Share Your Favorites
This month, post a picture of a book you love with the hashtag #MarthaBookClub, and inspire others to do the same.