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Opinion: The science behind beginning a reading habit

Adventures in Ink

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“What am I if not books?”

Clutching a warm cup of coffee in her hands, a friend of mine spoke these sentiments as we sat in Eurasia Coffee & Tea on Commercial Street, discussing our latest reading materials. Reading, for people like us, comes naturally. In fact, one of my first tasks when I moved to Ozark in 2014 was securing a library card.

Thanks to an incredible investment from my grandpa, my brother and I grew up in a home with a library. History, science, classic literature, an entire encyclopedia collection – we had extensive resources at our fingertips, and a library card for any other literary needs and curiosities.

Consuming the written word has always come as natural as breathing, but time brings change and with it my reading regime has altered. I don’t read as much as I wish I did, mostly because I don’t have time to just sit and enjoy a good book.

In addition, there is now this alluring device called a cellphone that sits on my nightstand and that equally devilish Netflix account I pay for every month. It’s a tempting way to spend an hour or so before going to sleep.

Tempting, yes, but not beneficial. Science says so.

And, for the busy working adult, picking up a good book instead of a cellphone is proven to reap greater results in sleep quality and stress management. These two go hand in hand in an often vicious cycle.

According to the American Psychological Association, most American adults report sleeping less than the minimum recommended seven to nine hours – 43 percent saying stress caused them to lose sleep in the past month. In that cycle, 21 percent then reported the subsequent lack of sleep made them feel more stressed. And so on.

This is where reading can save the day – or night. A 2009 University of Exeter study found reading to be more effective in reducing stress than typical methods, such as taking a walk or listening to music. The study also found 6 minutes of reading could reduce stress levels by up to two thirds.

David Lewis, a cognitive neurologist who conducted the Exeter study, called it “losing yourself” in a book. Certainly, books take the individual into another lifetime, distracting from the stresses of their own.

You may ask, “Can’t a TV show do that, too?” Yes, but reading a book requires more cognitive imagination rather than having the character’s voices, appearances and the visual setting handed to you on a screen.

The facts are clear, but don’t feel bad – craving technology is common. According to a 2013 survey by U.K.-based literacy foundation BookTrust, about 45 percent of the questioned cohort said they preferred watching TV over reading. More than half said they prefer the internet and social media.

Just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t mean it’s what’s best. And it’s hard to argue with science.

So here’s a plan, and the upcoming cold winter months are ideal to kickstart this new habit. Try committing to reading one book a month. That’s my goal, and it’s manageable with a busy schedule to read a chapter or two a night before sleeping.

And, to get you started, here are a few of my favorite recent reads:

• “The Sleeping Dictionary,” by Sujata Massey. This beautifully written novel follows the protagonist throughout her lifetime in late British Raj India.

• “Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery,” by Dr. Henry Marsh. This astounding read takes you into the neurosurgery operating room with St. George’s Hospital’s now retired senior consultant neurosurgeon. He touches on his work in Ukraine, which I found to be one of the most interesting aspects of the first-person biography.

• “Someone Knows My Name,” by Lawrence Hill. Nothing could prepare me for this candid novel that follows the lifetime of a woman who is captured and enslaved in the United States during British rule before the Revolutionary War. It’s powerful and timely.

• “Dublin Student Doctor,” by Patrick Taylor. My Irish great-grandma gave me this amusing book years ago, and I’ve reread it every couple years. It’s part of the “Irish Country Novel” series and follows the beginnings of general practitioner Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly.

• “Trapeze” by Simon Mawer. This book only took a few days to read because I couldn’t put it down. The protagonist is a figment of the author’s imagination; however her situation is based on a true story of espionage during World War II.

Springfield Business Journal Features Editor Hanna Smith can be reached at


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