BODY WATCH : Americans are spending less and less time reading books. But experts say we'd better start if we want want to keep ourselves . . . Intellectually Fit


Think you can't afford the time and energy to read books? Think again, because it may be that you can't afford not to.

Sure, you have lots of good excuses, just as you once did for not vigorously exercising. But reading books is no less crucial for your overall health than physical exercise.

And just as in physical exercise, occasional sprinting or non-aerobic workouts--like magazines--won't do for reaping maximum health benefits.

"Every single study shows that the single most important thing we can do for mental development is to regularly spend time with books," says Anita Silvey, editor in chief of Horn Book Magazine, a trade publication in Boston. "For children, it's the single factor in how well they do in school and their future careers. For adults, it's the way our minds stay fit and alive."


According to a 1990 Gallup Poll, Americans are reading less overall than two decades ago; only 24% completed a book in the past week, down from 30% in 1975. Additionally, the number of adult Americans who admitted to having read no books during the past year doubled from 1978 to 1990, from 8% to 16%. In all, almost half said they read five or fewer books the year before, compared to 37% in 1978.

It's not that people don't want to read, the same poll revealed. A whopping 92% said they considered reading to be a good use of time. But time is one thing they just don't have, so they go for quick reads like magazines and newspapers.

But such media can't replace books in a true reading program, says Mary Purucker, adjunct professor in UCLA's graduate school of education and information services. Nor can books on CD-ROM, she adds.

"Real books have a sensual being all of their own," she says. "They're lasting, beautiful and permanent. With the exception of researchers, there aren't too many people who go back to look at a 1962 issue of Time. But a lot of people will go back to read books published that year."

Unlike magazines and newspapers--with their shorter articles, jumps from page to page and distractions of ads--books elicit a long-term and concentrated interaction between author and reader, Purucker says.

"Both parties bring everything they've ever experienced, and together, you're creating something entirely new. No one experiences one book the same way--it's something that's yours alone, a whole new world. It's a mind-boggling experience and better than any virtual reality you could ever be in.

"There's nothing like the physical fact of a book to build and alter our minds in healthy ways," she adds.

By not reading, we lose "a sort of psychic habit, a logic, a sense of complexity, an ability to spot contradictions and even falsity," says Neil Postman, professor of communication arts at New York University and author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death" (Viking Penguin, 1986), a book that discusses the political, cultural and educational consequences of reading's decline.


Books also provide advice for specific problems--like divorce or death--and help you realize that you're not alone.

"I often recommend particular books to patients," says Michigan State University psychologist Gershen Kaufman.

And sometimes the best way to deal with one's problems is simply to get away from them for a while, thereby giving new perspective.

"For some people, reading books in general works as a way of detaching, unwinding and unhooking from problems and stress," Kaufman says.

Silvey agrees: "It gives us time and distance to work through emotional times in our lives. And it's hard to find a bigot who's a real reader. Books open up other lives and other points of view in a way that makes a person much more empathetic."

No less significant than losing intellectual and problem-solving abilities from not reading is the loss of a simple pleasure: the relaxation to be found at the end of a manic day.

A book, Silvey says, "gives everyone fresh energy in a fast-paced world."

A book, says a Chinese proverb, is like a "garden carried in the pocket."

A book, said Ezra Pound, "should be a ball of light in one's hand."

"A lot of people argue that reading books is a form of self-improvement," says Howard Tinsley, a professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University who studies leisure activities, including reading. "Although books do offer opportunities for self-enhancement, that's not why people pursue it as a leisure activity. They read to feel relieved of the demand to be conscientious."

And sharing books with others, by reading aloud or joining book reading groups, creates an emotional and cultural bond, experts agree. Reading can also evoke warm memories.

"Whenever I read certain books, I can see my grandmother's face and remember sitting in her lap," says Silvey, wistfully.


So what's a busy person to do?

Make time for books, experts say, even if it's only 20 minutes a night, less than one episode of "Home Improvement."

"Unless we do something soon, our culture will go into a free fall," says Rosemary Wells, a New York author who last year spearheaded a national campaign to make reading the "most important 20 minutes of your day."

"Only a tectonic plate shift back to reading is going to reverse this trend," she writes. "We now have an enormously successful fitness industry, with everything from yogurt stands to running shoes. . . . Together booksellers, library organizations and publishers must scare the public into paying attention the same way the fitness and anti-tobacconists did."

Adds Wells: "By reversing some of the mindlessness of electronic video culture, we can reinvigorate the American spirit."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World