In 1779, during the Revolutionary War, there was a young officer who spent his days in the midst of cannons, muskets and bloodshed. At night, to relax, he did not play cards, throw dice or get drunk with his fellow soldiers. He read books. Specifically, he devoured economic tomes like Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce.
The young officer was Alexander Hamilton. From the time he was a child, Hamilton binged on books the way that we binge on Netflix — even when they had no clear connection to his “day job.” For example, his odd enthusiasm for books on banking served him well years later when, as treasury secretary, he helped create the nation’s financial blueprint — without which the U.S. may never have grown into an economic powerhouse.
Books fuel ideas. Books nourish the soul. And on a more prosaic level, yes, books can even boost our careers. Warren Buffett once pointed to a stack of manuals and told an investment class at Columbia University, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.” Bill Gates says he reads around 50 books a year to “both learn new things and test my understanding.” Other notable bookworms include Oprah Winfrey and Elon Musk.
“The benefits of reading are extensive. Literacy is associated with academic success, financial and mental well-being, and health. ” Debra Long, professor, UC Davis Department of Psychology
The sales of physical books have actually ticked up in the past few years (up 1.9 percent in 2017 and 3.3 percent in 2016) while e-books have declined, yet the overarching trends show that people are reading less. Only one in five Americans say they regularly read “for personal interest,” according to a 2018 survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 24 percent of Americans have not read a single book in the past year, up from 19 percent in 2011. The studies don’t reveal the causes, but tellingly, the BLS survey found that the average American watches 2.7 hours of television each day.
Here’s why we should read more, and how to do it.
“The benefits of reading are extensive,” says Debra Long, a psychologist who studies reading at UC Davis. “Literacy is associated with academic success, financial and mental well-being, and health.” A 2016 study from Yale School of Public Health, for example, found that reading a book for 30 minutes a day corresponds with a two-year longer lifespan. (The researchers asked 3,635 adults over the age of 50 to fill out a questionnaire about their reading habits, and 12 years later, checked back in. Fewer book readers had died, providing them what the researches called a “survival advantage.”) A 2009 study from the University of Sussex (commissioned by a company doing a book giveaway, but still) found that reading a book was more effective at lowering stress (a 68 percent reduction) than taking a walk (42 percent), having a coffee or tea (54 percent) or playing video games (21 percent).
Research conducted by cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley, of the University of Toronto, concluded that fiction in particular can make us more empathetic and understanding. Oately refers to fiction as the mind’s “flight simulator,” letting us experience other perspectives and emotions. One of his experiments asked volunteers to match images of eyes with emotional states like “joking,” “desire,” or “flustered” and found fiction readers better able to match the eyes to the expressions.
I was hoping to find a study emphatically proving that reading books improves one’s IQ by at least 37 percent, but alas, the neurological benefits are tricky to prove. “As a reading researcher, I’m happy to promote the benefits of reading,” says Long. “Unfortunately, there’s been no good research on the link between reading and cognitive health.” Long explains that the “research is hard to do because there are so many confounds”; people who read lots of books tend to have a higher education level and socioeconomic status and better access to health care.
It’s easy to envision readers being less stressed and more empathetic leaders and overlook the fundamental building blocks of vocabulary, writing and thinking skills. “Reading is the primary means of knowledge acquisition in many domains and is the single largest factor in learning vocabulary,” says Long. “Vocabulary is interesting, because it is the one ability that continues to improve across the lifespan, unlike perception and memory.”
Robert French, a senior project manager for Sacramento-based Willdan Engineering, has a goal of reading 24 books a year and found that regardless of topic, “reading has helped my retention, vocabulary and writing skills.” There’s also a halo effect: “The discipline of reading helps in the discipline of work and scheduling,” he says. “It helps me focus when I have to review contracts and technical journals that are normally very hard to get through.”
Can books help save lives? That’s perhaps the case for Becky Johnson, a senior manager in PG&E’s Vegetation Management Program. “Our work is critical to keeping the lights on in California and to help protect the public from wildfires,” she explains. Crisp communication is critical, as her team often works in the chaos of storms and emergencies. Johnson credits Kim Scott’s Radical Candor with giving her “actionable tools” to be more direct and specific with her feedback, and she instantly applied what she learned, improving her team’s ability to function in emergencies.
Johnson reads about 30 books a year — half on a Kindle, half via audiobook. (Whether audiobooks count as reading is a hot debate among booklovers that can bruise feelings and end friendships; it will not be resolved here.) Reading that many books, you’re bound to be exposed to ideas that worm their way into your life and job. “Brené Brown’s Rising Strong reminded me that overcoming any challenge, big or small, requires working through the uncomfortable phases,” Johnson says. “It’s rare to go directly from a problem to a solution.”
I’d love to read more books, but I don’t have the time, says everyone. Books are the first things on our calendar’s chopping block. It’s easy to say “Read more,” but how do you actually do it?
French reads during lunch breaks, and then for about an hour before bed. “If the book is really engaging, I might try and squeeze in a few minutes during the day, like waiting for a meeting to start,” he says.
There are also shortcuts.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate random facts about Genghis Khan in the very few parties I attend.” Rich Foreman, CEO, Apptology
The app Blinkist, which touts itself as “the learning app that all the CEOs love,” allows a quick inhalation of a book’s contents — easy-to-digest summaries of nonfiction books that can be read in 10-20 minutes. Rich Foreman, CEO of the mobile app development company Apptology and the founding director of Startup Grind’s Sacramento Chapter, uses the audio version of Blinkist to zip through books during his morning walk. He listened to 30 books his first month using the app.
“I even listened to books I read in college, like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Foreman says. “I surprised myself by listening to historical books [on topics] like Alexander the Great. I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate random facts about Genghis Khan in the very few parties I attend.”
Curious, I tried Blinkist myself. While sipping a single glass of wine, I sprinted through two books — Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything and Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly — which, in theory, unlocked both the secrets of all human history and the path to my own inner peace. Was this as enriching as reading the actual books themselves? Of course not. Then again, it was probably better than whatever else I would have done on my phone during that time.
Several years ago, I gave speed-reading a try. All my life I’ve felt like a slow reader. Whereas my friends seem to drink up books in a few large gulps, it takes me days or weeks of plodding. So I bought Breakthrough Rapid Reading, and for months, I dutifully did my speed-reading homework. This is essentially how the reading drills work:
- Set a timer for five minutes.
- Read a book at your normal pace and count the words (you canestimate).
- Take that word count and double it.
- Set the timer again for five minutes, but now force yourself to read twice as many words as you did before. You won’t possibly be able to read and retain each word, but theoretically this routine will train your eyes and brain to scan faster and process more efficiently.
- Speed-reading hack: Use your finger as a pacemaker, which curbs distractions and forces you to maintain a brisk clip. Scan several lines in one daring jump and try to ignore the words on the far left and right — keeping the eyes trained on the middle 80 percent of the page.
I learned all of these tricks. Every morning I drilled for an hour, and I did this for weeks. And after all of this training — envision the most boring Rocky montage in history — I eventually forgot everything. My retention seemed to suffer, and I grew tired of tracing the page with my finger. Worst of all, the whole thing felt like a chore — reading was no longer fun.
Here’s what I found does work: consistency. I couldn’t be the hare, but I would become the tortoise. I prioritized allotting one hour a day to read. In that hour, I could read an average of 50 pages, so that’s 350 pages a week — more than enough for your average book. I set a new goal: to read 52 books a year. For the last four years, I’ve hit that target. (Your move, Bill Gates.)
Something funny happened once I knew that I would read a book a week. I became less precious about what to read. I took more chances, and I increased my exposure to new ideas. Remember Alexander Hamilton and his penchant for beach-reading the economic treatises? I only knew about this from my leisure reading of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, and this little nugget, in turn, gave me the idea for writing the book Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life, which was the biggest break in my career. Or a better example: While on vacation in Mexico, an artist took a break from his work and also cracked open Chernow’s biography. This artist was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who would go on to create the global hit musical “Hamilton.”
Books, of course, are their own reward. Perhaps they shouldn’t be justified, rationalized or demeaned with an ROI. Books are part of what makes us human, and at the end of the day, books provide the ultimate escape.
State Librarian of California Greg Lucas says, “Reading allows me to see broader vistas, make connections between seemingly disparate things, see issues from someone else’s point of view.” Decades ago, a friend introduced him to science fiction, shoving him some books by Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. “Hey man,” his friend told him, “when things get weird, go to Mars.”