Guess how often most American 16 to 29 year olds say they read a book, including print and e-books, or listen to an audiobook?
The options are “every day or almost every day,” “at least once a week,” “at least once a month,” “Less often,” or “Never.”
My first thought was “Less often.” But according to a large Pew survey, 43 percent of respondents in that age group said “every day or almost every day,” and another quarter said “at least once a week.”
Young people are reading, or at least they say they do, which means reading isn’t uncool. That’s great news because reading promotes critical thinking and some evidence suggests it helps keep you out of jail.
You might think most of the reading was for school, but the numbers are similar for people ages 25 to 29, when 80 percent of them are working.
It helps make these self-reports more plausible if you realize they’re not saying they read a lot every day. Among the readers, half completed more than seven books in a year, and half less. This suggests people are reading often, but in snatches, and that on average they take almost two months to finish a book.
I’m still encouraged. Less encouraging: Only slightly more than half of Americans ages 16 to 29 say they have a daily habit of reading the news on paper or on a device.
Are they critical readers? Only 57 percent think it’s easy to tell good information from bad on the Internet, which seems better than people assuming that everything they read is true. You may also be surprised to hear that young people still like paper. They prefer books over e-readers and print magazines over digital versions, as other research shows.
Older people read less, according to the Pew survey. If you’ve stopped reading books for a while, find one you like and carry it with you. You may find that dipping in regularly gives you focus and inspiration. Avid readers say that books provide escape and stimulation when life is dull or stressful; you might even begin to look forward to waiting rooms.
Some 5 million Americans are involved in a regular book club, and organizations in every state have created a community-wide “One Book” program where everyone in an area is encouraged to read the same book to foster discussion on the supermarket line. But simply reading a significant book puts you in touch with a larger conversation; a book based on research will show you how a large group of people have tackled certain questions, for example.
Fiction teaches other kinds of lessons. There’s now some scientific evidence that your English teachers were correct when they said you can develop your emotional intelligence through reading more challenging novels.
In general, using free time to keep mentally alert may help protect you from developing dementia, especially so when you hit the age of 40. You can get this health benefit even if you don’t have advanced education — the point is to spark your mind, not impress someone else. Reading enriches your life. As Walt Disney said, “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island.”
July 14, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA