The Benefits of Reading: Part II

Check out Part I here.

6. Reading Boosts Memory

Yes…according to Ken Pugh, PhD, president and director of research of Haskins Laboratories at Yale. He says that “parts of the brain that have evolved for other functions—such as vision, language, and associative learning—connect in a specific neural circuit for reading, which is very challenging.” Reading is more neurobiologically demanding than processing images (video) and speech (audio), which means it develops your brain in a way that no other medium can. Several studies have shown that reading printed material on paper—instead of screens—especially helps you retain information better.

Moreover, as The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation (New York) notes, researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have found that mentally stimulating activities like reading and writing executed over a lifetime are important for brain health in old age. They help keep both Alzheimer’s and dementia at bay.

This is not surprising. When you read, you come across characters who go through different events through different points in time and space. This happened, then that happened. He/she was like that, then he/she turned like this. You are forced to connect the dots, go back and retrieve data from the past every now and then. The exercise is simple, it flexes your mind, keeps you alert, tightens your grip on reality.

7. Reading Hones Critical and Analytical Skills

When it comes to terms like “critical” and “analytical” skills, many of us tend to see them in light of STEM subjects. But both fiction (say, a good crime novel) and non-fiction (say, an economic treatise on poverty) that deal with complex plots and dense theories, respectively, can train us to become problem-solvers. This is an ability you can apply to complications and dilemmas that need closure in your own life.

8. Reading Makes You Save Resources by Allowing You to Capitalise on the Experiences and Observations of Others

This point can be well-illustrated with the case of Jeff Bezos. In his interviews, the Amazon founder frequently explains his decision-making processes in detail. He operates within what he calls a “regret-minimisation framework”. By age 30, he was a stable guy with a stable career in New York. What made him quit his job and start a risky venture? A projection into the future that helped him circumvent daily confusions and cleared his vision. He imagined himself at an advanced age, looking back at his life. He asked himself: “When I’m 80, am I going to regret leaving Wall Street? No. Will I regret missing the beginning of the Internet? Yes.” And the rest is history.

It is no surprise that Bezos’ favourite novel is Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro, about the lost opportunities in the life of an English butler. When the Japanese-British author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, Bezos tweeted: “Long my favorite novel. Teaches pain of regret so well you will think you lived it. Congrats, Mr. Ishiguro, so earned!” It is believed that the reduction of remorse is an important element of the corporate culture at Amazon.

This is just one example of how one profound book can affect one person’s career without them having to bear the actual costs of lesson-learning. When you read a powerful book on the human condition, you live all sorts of experiences and acquire all manner of observations vicariously, and gain invaluable insights by spending a very small amount (usually $5-$25 or lower if you are a member of a library). Imagine how much lost time and money you can save by reading a large number of books and not having to arrive at useful and practical conclusions yourself the long and arduous way.


“When you read a powerful book on the human condition, you live all sorts of experiences and acquire all manner of observations vicariously…”


9. Reading Leads to More Empathy

When you delve into stories, you realise that individuals are embedded in unique, very particular narratives. What makes people act or think or feel the way they do? The reasons may be many. They could be constrained or emboldened by their cultural, political, economic or geographic contexts. A violently abusive childhood can trigger a desire for vengeance or a tendency to withdraw in weakness or the will to save as many people as possible. A luxurious and comfortable upbringing can turn one complacent or make them drift hedonistically without purpose or cause them to instill hope in the downtrodden that pain is not all there is to life.

Reading teaches us that people do not behave randomly. There is a meaning and a reason behind their activities. As we go deep into a story, we know the whys of a life better. We can stand in the shoes of others, regard the world from their perspective. Reading literary fiction particularly makes us more empathetic, provided we spend enough time with a text and allow ourselves to get transported to its world (Scientific American and Reader’s Digest cite scientific studies that have established this). If we can exhibit empathy towards fictional characters, it will not be difficult for us to do the same unto real people. Empathy occasions understanding, which, in turn, can create a kinder society.

Some find empathy a troubling disposition. What if we end up with too much curiosity, start seeing the world from the dark perspective of a dangerous, harmful figure? Would we not run the risk of being emotionally and mentally affected and influenced by them and absorbing some of their traits? We would say that empathy need not automatically transform into sympathy. Empathy in and of itself is a positive quality that makes us comprehend personalities, their viewpoints and motives. In fact, empathy may help us better identify who merits our sympathy and who doesn’t. Hence, tools that maximise the former virtue—such as books—should be welcomed by all.

10. Reading Builds Your Vocabulary

You may sit with any number of dictionaries and thesauruses to learn something new but that is not enough. Because the definitions therein are decontextualised. For sure, you do find brief examples that demonstrate usage but to be able to pick up subtle differences between words and master their accurate placements, we need to encounter them again and again in longer texts that are coherent and consistent in argument.


“We need to encounter them again and again in longer texts that are coherent and consistent in argument.” (Image: Segue is pronounced SEY-gwey or SEG-wey)


The only problem with expanding your vocabulary through reading, obviously, is that it doesn’t tell you how a word should be pronounced. So always check the phonetics online—even when you are the tiniest bit unsure—to avoid embarrassment in conversational situations!  


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Posted on May 26, 2018 in Literacy Consultancy

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