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Less Stress, Stronger Communities: Why We Can't Afford NOT To Read

07/16/2013 11:11 EDT | Updated 09/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Is it enough to strive to be a nation that knows how to read? Or must we strive to be a nation of readers?

In this four-part series on behalf of the National Reading Campaign, five readers with backgrounds in journalism, broadcasting, writing, and education frame their personal experiences of reading enjoyment within the context of a burgeoning national conversation. Here, Julie Wilson weighs in on reading communities.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. For years he's been studying the physiological effects of regular meditation on our body's ability not just to quiet the mind but to actually change it, increasing our grey matter in ways that have a significant effect on our immune systems and how we process emotion and stress. Personally, this fascinates me, because while I'm new to meditation, I've been turning to reading since I was a child for just this purpose. When I read frequently, I experience heightened sensory perception -- seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, and speech.

The U.K.'s National Literacy Trust has conducted research on the benefits of reading. Among their claims: frequent readers are less likely to experience divorce, have lower levels of stress, have better mental health, and experience lower unemployment. If you're at all skeptical--"I've been reading my whole life and my marriage still didn't work out!"--focus instead on this claim: that frequent readers are more likely to participate in community and to trust the people in that community.

What's at risk with reduced levels of pleasure reading, particularly in youth, is a sustained culture of empathy and civic engagement. We know that readers exhibit unique empathy. People are more likely to read if they enjoy it, especially across the span of a lifetime. Increasing levels of engagement in reading for pleasure positively affects social issues by helping level the playing field for disadvantaged segments of society; increasing democratic participation; decreasing public health costs; increasing mental health; and increasing cross-cultural communication.

This brings me to the new, and slightly problematic, job of the reader, to learn the language that will translate an artistic form of expression, and what is an entirely private practice, and put it to use for others in the shape of lists, ratings, Likes, Shares, and reviews. I'm not against online book sharing and reviewing communities, but when it's easier to create a list of themed titles--Books Best Read to Music--than to read the books on that compilation, it's worth a moment's pause. Book Riot makes a great comment on the usefulness of replacing literary peer pressure, often experienced in online communities, with the more genuine pleasure and pride of identifying not only as a great reader, but as "one who reads widely, generously, and with joy--wherever that takes you."

I'm not suggesting that readers put their heads down, never to be seen nor heard. I participate in online reading communities, and each time I add a book, I'm taken back to my youth, each accomplishment sewn to my electric-blue satin jacket: Academia. Drama. Basketball. In short, if the bookshelves in our homes and on our e-reading devices are a source of personal pride, these online lists, open to almost anyone, are the reader's gallery, the reader's exhibit. We want to show them off.

If the advent of online reading communities has done anything (beyond offering biographical data to behemoth merchandisers), it's created a sandbox for millions of people who self-identify as those who enjoy momentarily tuning out from the rest of the world, be it to escape, to learn, or to breathe. And if the book is the most perfect technology, consider this the next time you struggle to convince a child or teen that reading is, yes, pretty cool: It's among the last truly subversive acts we can perform, time spent in our own minds, active and imaginative, alone with our emotions, judgments, and dreams, where no one can reach us. No one. Yet, something remarkable happens when we engage in any of the arts, something that "awakens both a heightened sense of identity and civic awareness. We must banish the stereotypes that reading books or listening to music is passive behaviour. Art is not escapism but an invitation to activism."

If you're reading this, I'm likely preaching to the choir. If anything, I'm simply suggesting that we take our love of reading and turn it outward from time to time, toward the unknown and the guests we've yet to meet, to put the practice of reading to work where its best felt, in the real world.

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Additional Reading:

The Psychology of Fiction (Source: Psychology Today)

Reading for Pleasure (Source: The Literacy Trust, Inc.)

TOMORROW: Maureen Dockendorf and Faye Brownlie on reading in schools

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Top 20 Books Read Among U.S. High Schoolers 2010-2011