The current age is that of technology—but more importantly, that of the Internet. We thrive on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. We watch movies on flat screens, post pictures on Tumblr, and text instead of talk. Our world is instantaneous, filled with fast-paced sound bites and bold colors to catch our fleeting attention. We get frustrated if a webpage takes more than one second to load.
In this kind of world, books seem boring—an outdated method of receiving information or entertainment. Unless they’re e-books, they’re not eco-friendly, take up space, and require time and patience.
So, why read books? Here are four good reasons:
1. Words are the medium of ideas. Whether spoken or written, we use words to communicate with each other—to facilitate relationships, hash out ideas, and express emotions and needs. Without words, we would be reduced to little more than animals. Think of Helen Keller. Before she learned how to use sign language, she was impossibly lost in isolation, with no language to communicate. When Anne Sullivan gave her the gift of words, Helen was finally able to share her thoughts and ideas with others.
For millennia, books have served as the medium for preserving ideas. Whether the idea is a mathematical theory, cooking recipe, or family history, books allow us to entrust wisdom to others. I can pick up a copy of Plato’s Republic and hear the ideas that founded Western culture—ideas which are still relevant and discussed globally.
2. Reading is good for the brain. I’m not talking about reading dense philosophy or science books. The very act of reading—even a fun novel—stimulates the functioning of the brain. Research at Emory College has found that reading makes the brain more receptive to language, and increases the connectivity of neurons. These changes last for up to five days after a reader has finished a novel. Reading is an active engagement of the brain to the material on the page.
3. Books give us perspective. By myself, I can’t understand what others have suffered, or what it means to be part of another culture. But I can learn so much with a book. Reading Gone With the Wind helped me understand a period of US history from the losing side. The Secret Life of Bees and To Kill a Mockingbird showed me what it was like to live on the wrong end of racial prejudice. Books take us outside ourselves and teach us to see through the eyes of other people. Hopefully, we can learn to be more understanding and avoid the mistakes of older generations.
4. Books require imagination. One of my rules of life is to never watch a film adaptation before I’ve read its book. Starting with the movie ruins the book for me, because I’m left with the actors’ faces in my mind, instead of using the author’s words to invent my own picture. Books are grand in a way films can never be, because books allow us to imagine. The mind is a wonderful place to wander, and books help us find our way there.
I’m not saying we should forsake technology in favor of printed material. Other mediums can certainly engage in the same ideas as books. For example, the movie Dead Poets Society has helped me think through the narrow-mindedness of certain social expectations, just as reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice did. Video games teach problem-solving and strategy skills; blogs provide immediate interaction with ideas. These mediums are valuable in their own right.
But for me, there is nothing better than printed words on a solid page. Books are worth reading.