Reading for fun: not an oxymoron


Cartoon by Jenny Lu.

By Katherine Sylvester

Nine-year-olds are beating you at something.

It’s not daily hours of sleep, although they’re probably beating you at that too. But it is something almost as important: reading for fun.

Nine-year-olds are almost three times more likely to be daily readers than 17-year-olds, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And the teen reading rate is only getting worse: 45 percent of 17-year-olds say they read by choice only once or twice a year—a historic low.

Nowadays, reading “for fun” is a chore more than anything else. It’s an activity to be endured rather than enjoyed. And to make matters worse, the case for reading for fun has become almost as tired as the act itself. But we shouldn’t let ourselves forget the huge range of benefits that it has.  

For starters, reading for fun is one of the best ways to de-stress. If your justification for avoiding books is stress, that’s actually even more of an indication that you ought to read for fun more often.

A 2009 University of Sussex study found that reading for just six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by 68 percent, leading researchers to conclude that pleasure reading is “the ultimate relaxation.” Reading was more effective at reducing stress than taking a walk, listening to music or drinking tea. It can cost a lot of money to vacation to a relaxing exotic destination like the Caribbean, the rainforest or the English countryside, but it costs almost nothing to escape there through a book.

For my part, there’s nothing I find more soothing than a couple hours with one of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. The clever plot lines, thoughtful contemplations and perceptive and wry character insights never fail to calm me down in hectic times.

Perhaps even more important, reading for fun has been closely linked to educational outcomes. I’ve had great English teachers for years, but I’ve always felt that the primary reason I like to write—and the primary reason I’m half decent at it—is that I used to read constantly. In elementary and middle school, I rarely went anywhere without a book.

This isn’t just my impression of it either. Jeffrey Wilhelm of Boise State University found that reading for fun is the biggest predictor of cognitive development and social mobility, even more important than parental socioeconomic status. The implications of this are huge: pleasure reading gives students the power to overcome the widening achievement gaps we see today.

Reading has a whole host of other benefits, too. It improves empathy and social skills, and it reduces prejudices towards marginalized groups. This isn’t limited to nonfiction, either—the first book that ever made me cry was The Help, and I’ll never forget the grave sense of injustice that flooded me when I read that book. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that pleasure reading can motivate, or even create, civil rights activists.

Plus, reading just generally makes people happier. A University of Liverpool study found that readers are 21 percent less likely to report feelings of depression and 10 percent more likely to have high self-esteem than non-readers.

Over winter break, I read my first non-school-related book in months—The Genius Plague by David Walton. And I was truly shocked by how fun, exciting and enjoyably terrifying it was. It had been so long that I barely had the motivation to crack the book open, but once I did, I was so engrossed that I finished it within a few hours. If you think books are boring, think again: I challenge anyone to stay bored with this combination of a human-race threatening plague, code breaking, family drama, geniuses and government cover-ups.

I know that it’s impossible to wave a magic wand and force everyone to read for fun. There’s a lot of obstacles—we’re all busy with classes, activities, social media and the Internet in general. Unfortunately, a lot of these things are hard to change. But there’s definitely one thing we can change: we can give pleasure reading the respect it’s due.

The biggest obstacle to reading isn’t homework, tests or the Internet—it’s our own mindsets. Fix those, and it suddenly won’t seem so hard anymore.