By Andrés Muñoz
At the start of the semester, I always ask my students the following question: “What is your favourite book?” Most students either snicker or say outright that they don’t read or hate reading. While there are a few bookworms in my class, a worrying trend in recent years is that students (and people in general) don’t read as much anymore.
This drop in book appreciation results in diminished mental capabilities and a lack of vocabulary and writing skills. The screens have taken our attention, leaving few chances for people to sit down and truly exercise their minds. Let’s review the downsides of a general lack of reading and recommend a few action steps to promote reading wherever you may be.
The Battle For Your Time: The Commodity Of Attention
From a time management perspective, people’s lives are a constant competition to see who or what attracts their attention the most. Whether it is an online streaming platform releasing their new series all at once so users can binge-watch it or social media apps researching dopamine levels to create the perfect rush when you get a notification, companies have heavily researched how you dedicate your time.
You’re no longer a person, you are a pair of eyeballs, and companies fight to have your attention as much as possible for as long as possible. This is the cornerstone of the entertainment industry. Be it film, TV, video games, or sports, the idea for them is to grab the biggest asset you can ever give anyone: your time.
Online search engines and neural networks like Google or ChatGPT let you have the whole of human knowledge on a phone screen in the palm of your hand. While this may seem like the ultimate blessing, where we’ll learn as much as possible about anything we want, the deal has its definite downsides.
By not investigating and receiving everything on your screen instantly, our society reduces the possibility of creating situations where individuals face a cognitive challenge. When these services obtain and synthesise information for you in just a few seconds, why would you dedicate your time to reading a whole book?
When reading a book, nobody but you receive the benefits. Not Google, not Netflix, not Facebook or Amazon, but you. We live in a world where companies don’t like that you’re not spending your time (or eyeballs) with them, as this doesn’t profit them. The only profit is inside your head.
Exercising Your Mind
Reading is a mental exercise. It not only expands your cognitive abilities, but it reduces stress, enhances your empathy and creativity—and most importantly for me—it provides you with levels of nuance and complexity that the dumbed-down version of looking up anything online cannot offer.
You might say that we read every day, but not like this. To sit down and read a book is a different thing. Books exercise your mind just like some go to the gym to strengthen their bodies. As you read more, you think more critically, increase your vocabulary, and improve your writing skills.
Furthermore, think of the alternative: when you spend more time watching memes on a screen, your ability to concentrate is reduced, and your attention span becomes more limited. This is an effect across all age groups and not just youngsters, but they are the ones who are clearly being affected the most.
A reading study of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) indicates that of all the age groups, the steepest decline appears in adults ages 18 to 24. As Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA, reveals: “To lose such intellectual capabilities—and the many sorts of human continuity it allows—would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.“
So What Do We Need To Do?
How do we make sure that we as a society continue to enjoy the mental benefits of reading? We must start with reading at a young age. As with almost everything, practice makes perfect. The cognitive abilities you get from reading are the product of years of practice. So, having children read instead of looking at phones or screens is a fundamental start.
Technology is not entirely bad, by the way; it’s also there to help us. Using social media platforms to create book clubs, forums, and the like is also a way to promote literacy. Authors can use these networks to contact their readers, share excerpts of their books, and create a following.
Another thing we need to do is eliminate the barriers. Many people don’t have access to books, so creating libraries, community book exchanges and bookstores can help reach a vast audience. The task is challenging, as society is heavily focused on expanding cell phone signal range rather than on people’s mental and cognitive capabilities, but it’s a fight worth fighting.
What other ways should we promote books? Let us know in the comments section below!