Over the years that I have spent both as a student and as an instructor in the humanities and social sciences, I have become aware of the many benefits that come from reading as a sustained practice. As the end of the semester nears, I’d like to share what I see (in no order of importance) as the most significant of these benefits. Perhaps after going through this list, dear reader, you’ll feel enticed to pick up a book or two for the break, that is, if you haven’t already thought about doing so.
1) Reading exercises the brain. If you’ve ever felt tired after reading, then you might not be surprised to learn that reading actually involves physical work. As you read, your brain strengthens existing neurological pathways and builds new ones. Reading literally changes the architecture of your brain—it makes your brain swole, so to speak—the effect of which is an improvement in cognitive function.
2) Reading broadens the imagination. Academic texts, particularly science books, show us a world that is stranger and wilder than the mind can conceive. Fictional stories transport us to worlds that often redefine the limits of what is possible. In order to envision these worlds, we make new connections between existing ideas, a practice that strengthens our ability to think, dream, and create.
3) Reading teaches us empathy. I have found that books can tug at my heartstrings in ways that movies simply cannot (I’m not crying. You’re crying). Reading allows us to become immersed in the (fictional and sometimes nonfictional) experiences of others. We build connections with characters. We revel in their victories and commiserate with their losses. We reside in their thoughts and see life from their points of view. In a world as diverse and interconnected as ours, this is an invaluable ability, for it can make us better students, better leaders, and better people.
4) Reading expands our vocabulary, which allows us to think and express ourselves more clearly. Books generally contain vocabulary that is richer than that of spoken language. Reading can, therefore, place us in contact with unfamiliar words and expressions. What is more, when we read, we come across new terms in their respective contexts, which show us their proper use. To be sure, we might only retain a relative handful of new words and expressions from each book that we read, but over time habitual reading can help us build a robust vocabulary (Pro tip: getting in the habit of looking up unfamiliar words—either as you read or when you have finished—is a great help).
5) Reading makes us better writers—a bit of insight passed on by all of my writing mentors. The benefits mentioned above help improve the depth and precision of our writing. Reading moreover exposes us to various styles and forms of writing, showing us what is possible in terms of written expression. On a more technical level, reading enables us to deepen our understanding of language mechanics. Scholarly texts, in particular, provide examples of high- quality writing. Yet, we must keep in mind that when it comes to published works, we often only see the most polished versions of these texts. I echo the spirit of every writing mentor when I say that writing is a—frequently long and arduous—process.
Far from exhaustive, this list (keep an eye out for the sequel) speaks to the importance of reading as a sustained practice. Indeed, by reading habitually, we develop our intellectual and interpersonal competencies, which make us better equipped to thrive in our personal and academic lives.
Aside from the benefits listed above, what others do you see?