I remember pleading with my parents to let me read “just five more minutes” each night at bedtime. My clip-on booklight was an essential item on my packing list for overnight camp. During graduate school I would sometimes sneak off for lunch in a remote spot on campus so I could read uninterrupted. For me, a near-perfect day would be one in which I curl up with a good book and read it cover to cover.
I came by this love of reading naturally — my parents and grandparents were avid readers. I recall my grandmother saying with a mix of affection and disdain that, when she got married, my grandfather’s dowry was “just a box of books”; she repeated this so often that it became a mantra my sister and I could reprise on cue.
My father was regimented about his reading: alternating between fiction and nonfiction, stopping at the library every week to return books he’d finished and to check out a new pile. Joining him on occasion, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the librarians all knew him well — not just those at the main library in town but also those at the satellite libraries and even in the next town over, where my father would go if the books he was looking for weren’t available nearby. My grandmothers put their names on the library waitlist so they could catch the new releases soon after they were published. My mother picked up bargain books at the drug store, carrying them with her and reading a few pages in the waiting room at doctors’ offices or in the audience before a school concert. We often passed books and book recommendations around: “Did you read the latest John Grisham?” “Wasn’t Jennifer Weiner’s new book great?” “You must read The Kite Runner.”
Fortunately, reading is a healthy habit. Various studies have identified benefits including reduced stress, improved concentration, and enhanced vocabulary. To me, reading is an escape into someone else’s life story that, when well told, sucks you in and keeps you engaged. I love getting lost in a book, of getting so immersed in the lives of characters that I actually feel their excitement, their trepidation, their pain, and their joy. I enjoy visualizing a place I’ve never visited and getting a sense of another time, unique relationships, a completely different path in life. I think this has helped me gain some insight into and empathy for others. For fun I don’t read anything too “hard”; I prefer enthralling page-turners where I hardly notice the time going by. And when I find an author or set of characters I love, I’ll eagerly reach for another in the series.
Around the world, literacy rates have improved and today an average person spends five to ten hours reading each week; that number is highest in India, Thailand, and China and lowest in Canada, Germany, and the United States. Children who read regularly perform better in school and are more likely to graduate high school. A typical American reads four books each year, a stat that is directly correlated with wealth and education level. Lower-income and less educated people may not have access, means, or time for extensive reading. Oprah Winfrey credits books as her “path to personal freedom”; since its inception in 1996, Oprah’s Book Club has encouraged reading, boosted sales, and expanded circulation of 86 enlightening books. Roughly a quarter of U.S. adults read no books in the past year, while CEOs reportedly read an average of 60 books per year.
My tastes in books are eclectic: I relish the adventure of Dan Brown, the humor of Sophie Kinsella, the whodunit of Michael Connelly, and the romance of Kristan Higgins. I enjoy swapping young adult books by Angie Thomas, Becky Albertalli, and John Green with my daughter. I gained a visceral understanding for the injustice of the criminal court system in the United States from Bryan Stevenson’s powerful true story Just Mercy. Elin Hilderbrand’s novels make me long for a vacation in Nantucket. After reading Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker, I better appreciate the struggle of a family plagued by mental illness. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series has me laughing out loud.
The global book industry is a $110 billion market with more than two million new books produced each year, bringing the total number of books in the world to more than 140 million. About two-thirds of publishing revenue still comes from physical books, though sales of electronic books and audiobooks are on the rise. I’ve always enjoyed the feel of a hardcover or paperback book in my hand, the smell of newly cut paper, the sound of flipping pages. However, I’ve grown to appreciate the convenience of digital books, always right nearby on my iPhone: e-books I can read while waiting at hockey practice or before falling asleep at night, audiobooks I listen to while walking the dog or washing dishes. The convenient library app allows me to borrow digital books for a two-week stretch, renew when necessary, and quickly download similar or related books. At any given moment, I’m usually reading and listening to two or three different books at the same time.
Romance is the most popular and most profitable book genre, dominated by female writers and readers. But novels about women (often disparagingly called “chick lit”) get less credence in the uptight world of literary criticism and book reviews, which tend to favor more “serious” subjects like war, sports, and politics. (This is a cause Jennifer Weiner has taken up admirably: “Why are you calling my book chick lit? It’s just a story about a young woman and if it was a story about a young man, it would just be a book.”)
While I know many people used their extra time at home during pandemic quarantine to binge-watch popular Netflix series or bake sourdough bread, I savored opportunities to curl up with a good book. Apparently, I wasn’t alone: 35% of the world read more during 2020, though many bookshops had to switch to online sales.
When I sneak in a few pages of a book instead of helping with housework or homework, I feel a twinge of guilt. It seems like a selfish indulgence, but I also know that it’s important for my mental health: it brings me joy, helps me relax, and keeps me sane. It’s also part of my commitment to lifelong learning, as I gain valuable perspectives, lessons, and inspiration from the stories of others.