Read Books and You Will Live Longer

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.

— Groucho Marx

On the Survival Advantage of Books Reading

We have been made amply aware that sedentary activities tend to be deleterious to our health, especially if not compensated for by exercise and other non sedentary tasks. This is all the more so for older people.

Whereas this generalization is corroborated by a sizable body of data, there may be an mportant exception to it: the reading of books. A very recent article(1) by Yale University School of Public Health researchers presents persuasive evidence that this mostly sedentary activity has a significant, positive impact upon longevity.

The researchers drew a sample of 3635 over age 50 participants to the Health and Retirement Study supported by the National Institute of Aging (USA). These individuals were followed over a 12 year period, with the purpose of determining whether their reading habits were related to their chances of survival. Based upon their responses to a questionnaire, the participants were divided into a no-reading group, a periodical and magazines reading group which averaged about 6 hours reading per week, and a book reading group, which averaged about 4 hours of weekly reading.

Over the 12 year period of the study, the book readers showed a 20 per cent reduction in mortality relative to the non-book readers. Book readers enjoyed a 23 month survival advantage over the non readers of books. The readers of periodicals were also advantaged relative to the non readers, but by a significantly smaller amount than the book readers. Further, this advantage was limited chiefly to the readers of periodicals who spent the most time reading. In sum, most of the 'survival effect' can be attributed to book reading rather than to reading in general.

What can explain these findings? Could it be, for instance, that book readers tend to be more educated, wealthier, and healthier than non book readers, and therefore the advantages supposedly brought about by book reading are due to these primary factors, and not to book reading per se?

The study was designed, and statistically analyzed, to take into account the impact of these and other variables on higher survival rates. By so doing, the researchers were able to establish that the effects of book reading versus non book reading were real and substantial even once the possible role of age, sex, race, education, health, wealth, marital status, cognitive status, and depression were taken into account.

If book reading per se, rather than other factors and even reading in general, is mostly responsible for the survival advantage of book readers, what can explain this effect?

The answer suggested by the authors, based upon previous independent findings, is that the survival advantage provided by books results from the cognitive processes promoted by this activity. Unlike the more cursory reading of periodicals, often very shallow in content, book reading - and I would add: especially the reading of serious, demanding, books rather than of the often insubstantial best sellers - compels a type of deep reading which encourages the reader to draw connections between various parts of the material, to question its content and meaning, to relate it to the outside world and his or her experiences, and so on. Indeed, research has shown that critical thinking, reasoning, and size of vocabulary, are all enhanced by book reading. Another type of cognitive processes stimulated by book reading (and more specifically by fiction reading, which is the preferred choice for 87% of ordinary readers) tends to promote empathy, and to enhance emotional intelligence and social skills, all of which factors are known to enhance survival rates.

According to the authors' hypothesis, then, books reading enhances over time our level of cognitive activity, which in turn tends to protect us from cognitive and therefore overall psychophysical decline in the later years, thereby increasing our longevity and, I suspect, its quality.

The study raises, without addressing, further interesting questions. To list but a few: Is it the case that the more reading one does, at least up to a point, the greater one's survival chances? Does it matter whether one reads, say, fiction vs. non fiction? Best sellers vs. classics? Paper books vs. e-books?

Pompeii, Wall Painting
Pompeii, Wall Painting | Source

On the Joys and Perils of the Reading Life

In sum: books help us live longer, perhaps by helping us retain adequate cognitive skills well into the later years. But beyond this, what other roles do books play in our lives, which might also contribute to the longevity effect measured by the above study, and to the quality of our life more in general?

Writers and thinkers to whom reading was an integral part of their existence can help us find – or at least more vividly express - other aspects of the reading life that have a bearing upon these questions. Not all of which may be positive: for, as Carl Jung wrote somewhere, everything real casts a shadow.

What is the dark side of reading, then?

Well: Do you remember what happened to that insatiable devourer of books who came to be known as Don Quixote? Cervantes informs us that “finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” Case closed?

Somewhat less lethally: Can reading become too much of a good thing, perhaps by becoming a poor substitute for real living?

Saul Bellow(2) reminded us that “people can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.” And John Wesley, similarly cautioned us: 'Beware you be not swallowed up in books! An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.”

Many others though saw reading not as a substitute for living, but an enhancer of it, a way to promote deeper living. Marcel Proust felt that “there are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favourite book.” For Mary Ruefle, literature “gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly”. And Italo Calvino detected resemblances between lovemaking and reading, for “within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.” Salman Rushdie observed that “When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced." And Gustave Flaubert asked us to “read in order to live”. “ For Ezra Pound, “man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one's hand.”

Arthur Schopenhauer took instead a dim view of reading, for he perceived that “in reading, the mind is, in fact, only the playground of another’s thoughts. So it comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading he gradually loses the capacity for thinking... This is the case with many learned persons: they have read themselves stupid." Somewhat less alarmingly, Albert Einstein also warned us that “reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

I suspect that these warnings, though sensible enough when implicitly addressed to very creative persons, may be far less relevant to the activities of ordinary readers. Moreover, reading itself can be a very creative, thought promoting endeavour: “There is creative reading as well as creative writing”, pointed out Ralph Waldo Emerson. “I don’t take up the story and follow it as if it were a road, taking me somewhere - wrote Alice Munroe - ... I go into it, and move back and forth and settle here and there, and stay in it for a while. It is more like a house." Joseph Campbell advised us to “sit in a room and read--and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time.”

What we read as well as the way we read matters a great deal: Franz Kafka thought that “We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” For Rene Descartes, the reading of great classics was in essence “like a conversation with the finest men of past centuries.”

The relationship with books and their authors even if long dead can be intensely emotional. The irascible mark Twain was maddened by Jane Austen's books : “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” There.

Of course there are bad as well as good readers (a factor that the study discussed above could not differentiate): “The worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops - wrote Friedrich Nietzsche - they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.” And Samuel Taylor Coleridge was unimpressed, to put it mildly, by the reading habits of most readers. He thought that they “may be divided into four classes: 1) Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied. 2) Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time. 3) Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read. 4) Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also” A tad pessimistic, I think. Woody Allen's experiences are also worth reporting: I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

Books can bring much needed comfort to our lives, in more ways than one. “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books”, wrote Jorge Luis Borges; and Jane Smiley noted that "many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.” For Somerset Maugham, “to acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” And for E. B. White, 'A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people - people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book." And Gustave Flaubert saw no “better occupation, really, than to spend the evening at the fireside with a book, with the wind beating on the windows and the lamp burning bright...”

Some people simply have never enough when it comes to books: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me" , wrote C.S. Lewis. For some, books are an essential necessity: “I couldn't live a week without a private library - indeed, I'd part with all my furniture and squat and sleep on the floor before I'd let go of the 1500 or so books I possess” , wrote H. P. Lovecraft.

And oh, did I mention that books make society safer? “You have to remember that it is impossible to commit a crime while reading a book”, astutely noted John Waters...

In sum, dear reader, as you probably already knew there are more reasons in favour of reading books than reasons to abstain from this practice. You can also live longer, and this will give you more time to read!

I can think of no better way to conclude this celebration of the virtues of reading than through the verses of a great poet:

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears a Human soul.

— Emily Dickinson


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