February 23, 2021

YAO | Read All About It

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Back in ye olden days, I spent my afternoons maxing out the book limit at my local library and my evenings traveling to Oz or Narnia for hours at a time. The table by my bed perpetually labored under a precarious stack of novels that always seemed to grow higher. But soon enough, that library card spent more and more time inside some drawer or another before I eventually misplaced it. My nightstand heaved a sigh of relief as the pile of books dwindled to nothing. 

Somewhere between sixth-grade’s The Giver (which I enjoyed) and twelfth-grade’s Hamlet (which I skimmed before the exam), I put down leisure reading for good. There was no more time for such things, I reasoned. You could say that I felt … booked solid. 

It’s not just me. I’ve heard far too many of my peers lament about where their childhoods spent devouring pages of Lemony Snicket and Neal Shusterman had gone. According to a 2018 American Time Use Survey, pleasure reading in the US has declined 30% since 2004. A 2019 Yale library statistic showed a 64% decrease in the number of books checked out over the past 10 years, and other universities have reported similar findings. Even as teachers and librarians continue to tout the benefits of reading, we all choose to ignore their advice. 

For me –– and I’m sure others can relate –– the rise of digital media could explain away some of these habit changes. Let’s face it, after a long day of classes and work, the last thing anyone wants to do is expend brain power reading, of all things. The mindless ease of watching YouTube seems to far outweigh the commitment of engaging with a story. If not for the pandemic, I probably would have been happy enough to stay on the digital media path. 

Sometime last April, I grew tired of the COVID updates lighting up my phone and pulled out my tattered copies of Percy Jackson to seek comfort in a childhood favorite. Over the next few months, I repopulated that nightstand with nearly-forgotten classics and newfound gems. 

It’s no secret that the coronavirus crisis has wreaked havoc on mental health worldwide. In the U.S., three out of four college students between the ages of 18 and 24 have reported increased stress because of the pandemic. However, research indicates that reading for pleasure can alleviate some of the toll that the pandemic has taken. Studies in the past have also shown that reading has the same effect in lowering heart-rate and blood-pressure that yoga and humor have. Dr. Robin Bright from the University of Lethbridge has found that in addition to decreasing anxiety and stress, reading can also increase our sense of empathy. 

Social media, by contrast, has the opposite effect. Increased social media engagement during the pandemic has been linked to higher levels of distress due to increased exposure to stressors. In addition, while using technology at night might sound like a nice wind-down activity, it actually impacts sleep by suppressing melatonin production. It has been shown that those who read before bed sleep on average over an hour more than non-readers. So, setting up a habit to read for a bit at night, even if only for a few minutes, can set you up for a better nights’ sleep and a better start to the next day. As a bonus, I guarantee that the instant gratification of scrolling on Instagram doesn’t hold a candle to the reward of sticking with and finishing a book. 

Making time for reading in your life doesn’t need to be some monumental chore. Audiobooks have now become a constant staple in my life. If you’re like me and don’t have an Audible account, it’s so easy to access your local library through apps like Libby or OverDrive. If you don’t have a physical book on hand, you most likely have your phone. Those fifteen-minute intervals between classes or time spent in the dining hall lines make for prime audiobook listening time. 

Goodreads is also an underrated resource that I recently discovered since it’s a social media platform for book nerds. You can connect with other readers over shared literary interests and even set a yearly reading goal to strive towards. 

Literature has long since been a part of human society that provides an outlet for creativity, education and a healthy form of escapism. Taking the time to read for pleasure during this next year of uncertainty could improve aspects of your life that you might not have expected. Whether you read for a few minutes or a few hours each day, your well-being –– and your reading goal –– will thank you. 

Katherine Yao is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.