Throughout history conspicuous reading and ostentatious book collecting expressed an aspiration to display proof of possessing highly sought cultural status and accomplishments. It served to distinguish the persona of the reader and the lover of books from the rest of society. The presentation of the self through the book was perceived as a medium through which individuals could elevate themselves and gain status as refined individuals.
Individuals went to great length to advertise their love of reading. Richard de Bury's essay Philobiblon, written in 1344 was a classic exercise in self-aggrandisement. The text promoted the image of de Bury as an extremely serious reader. By presenting its author as the lover of books, Philobiblon offers an early example of the cultivation of a highly respected identity through the possession of, and relationship with, books.
The performance of ostentatious reading sometimes invited ridicule. The satire, The Ship of Fools (1494), written by the German humanist theologian Sebastian Brant (1457-1521), poked fun at the exhibitionist bibliophile. The bookish fool whose book collection serves as a decoration and as a means for the attainment of prestige and glory was condemned as a morally reprehensible individual, parasitical on the reputation of the genuine reader.
By the 15th and 16th centuries the status of authority, sophistication and learning was communicated through appearing to hold or read a book. Portraits depicting their subjects reading signified spiritual and ethical significance. The striking figure of the Florentine poetess Laura Battiferri (1523-1584), who is painted as self-consciously displaying her opened manuscript of the sonnets of Petrarch, is meant to signal her symbolic connection with the famous humanist who lived two centuries previously. In this painting (circa 1560), the artist Agnolo Bronzino represents the open book not as a prop but as an extension of Battiferri's personality.
Since the 16th century, the growing availability of printed texts has encouraged people to be seen as an active reader. The portrait of a person reading, holding a book or surrounded by manuscripts communicated the ideal of a culturally accomplished individual devoted to lofty ideals. In current times, interior decorators promote this fashion and use shelves displaying books to create an impression of sophistication in the room. Television interviews and talk shows often use bookcases filled with impressive looking texts as a background to endow their show with gravitas. Even in the age of the internet, digital technology and e-books, the bookcase reminds the audience that the interviewee is a serious person worth hearing.
In some circles, literacy endowed individuals with an identity of social and cultural superiority. But all sections of society, even people who lack formal education, intuitively recognise that reading is an important accomplishment and a useful skill. Social research shows that the public associates reading with being capable and intelligent. In many communities, the reading of books as opposed to just magazines and newspapers can gain prestige for the individual.
The way people construct their sense of self and identity through reading is subject to a variety of historical, cultural and social variations. People do not simply read. Their approach towards reading is formed through the way this activity is practised in their community – especially family members and friends and by their social circumstances.
The performance of reading assumes its most self-conscious form in the sphere of childrearing. Parents –especially from the middle classes – devote considerable time and resources to encourage their child to embrace the book. It is not uncommon to see a toddler holding and looking at a little book. The snapshot of a pre-school youngster reading a book serves as evidence of responsible parenting.
I am sitting in a coffee bar in Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, and I am looking across the table to see what a mother and her young teenage girl are reading. The young girl appeared to be self-consciously absorbed in reading her novel, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta – which did not prevent her from regularly checking her smartphone for messages. Unlike her mother, who was totally engrossed in reading Donna Tartt's The Little Friend and rarely lifted her eyes from the book, the young teenager could not quite make up her mind as to whether the novel or the phone was most worthy of her attention.
The balancing of attention between reading Saving Francesca and the permanently switched on mobile phone is designated as a form of multitasking. What's fascinating about the dividing of attention is that it expresses the multiplicity of reading identities available to people now.
Young people sitting in a bar checking their phones for texts are not making a statement about their literary status. They are signalling the message that they are connected and most important of all – that their attention is in demand. People texting or checking their phone, while sitting on their own or with colleagues and friends are not simply interested in communicating to someone in a different digital space. They are presenting themselves as digitally active and sophisticated individuals to those nearby.
There is something of a paradox in the performance of reading text messages in public. A phone like a book in a public situation serves as a useful prop to avoid interaction with others. Like a book positioned in front of an individual's face, the use of a digital gadget can serve as a Do Not Disturb sign. But unlike the performance of the solitary reading a book, the fiddling around with a phone can also convey an interest in interaction.
There is a lot at stake in the way that people are seen as readers. Since the invention of printing, certain types of literary behaviour are associated with taste and virtue, while other practices are depicted as inferior versions of cultured reading. Individuals have always been sensitive to signals about what kind of reading enjoys prestige. Illiteracy continues to be stigmatised and people who have difficulty reading texts are too often subject to derision. Readers continue to be judged and situated within in a cultural hierarchy.
What is fascinating about the reading culture of our time is that there are competing ideas about which performance of reading ought to be valued.
As far as many bibliophiles are concerned, digital technology represents a clear and present danger to the reading of the book. Numerous commentators argue that a significant section of young people are not really readers. Alan Jacobs in his The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction makes a distinction between readers and those "people who read". Evidently not everyone who can read is a real – that is, culturally accomplished – reader.
He argues that "it's what you're reading that matters". Without a hint of irony, Jacobs appeals to the legacy of Richard de Bury, that consummate performer of conspicuous reading to validate his own literary authority.
Digital technophiles have embraced the identity of readers who take reading very casually. One digital media guru, Clay Shirky, is delighted that "no one" reads novels such as Tolstoy's War and Peace since it is "too long and not so interesting". Flaunting his disdain for serious literature, Shirky adopts the identity of the cool, detached flexible interactive reader. Arguably it is he, rather than Jacobs, who most successfully personifies the legacy of the conspicuous performer of reading.
Thankfully many readers do not simply perform, they actually fall in love with the texts they consume. And that is what is really important – embarking on a journey through reading. Not the performance, but the reading.
Frank Furedi's Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter is published by Bloomsbury at $40.
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter
“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” ― Doris Lessing
One of the most inspiring perks we’re lucky enough to have at Buffer is a free Kindle for each teammate (and her family!) and as many free Kindle books as you like, no questions asked.
When we share what we’re reading at Buffer on our Pinterest page or in our Slack community, the selections often tend to skew more toward non-fiction—you can generally find teammates reading books that help us improve at our jobs, understand our world better and become more productive, for example.
What’s interesting—and maybe a bit counterintuitive—is that reading fiction can provide many of those same self-improvement benefits, even while exploring other worlds through stories that exist only in the mind.
In fact, the practice of using books, poetry and other written words as a form of therapy has helped humans for centuries. Fiction is a uniquely powerful way to understand others, tap into creativity and exercise your brain.
The next time you feel even a tiny bit guilty for picking up a work of fiction instead of a self-help book, consider these 9 benefits of reading fiction.
1. Empathy: Imagining creates understanding
To put yourself in the shoes of others and grow your capacity for empathy, you can hardly do better than reading fiction. Multiple studies have shown that imagining stories helps activate the regions of your brain responsible for better understanding others and seeing the world from a new perspective.
When the psychologist Raymond Mar analyzed 86 fMRI studies, he saw substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals.
“…In particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions ‘theory of mind.’ Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”
That’s because when we read about a situation or feeling, it’s very nearly as if we’re feeling it ourselves. As Fast Company reports:
Two researchers from Washington University in St. Louis scanned the brains of fiction readers and discovered that their test subjects created intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements, and tastes they encountered in the narrative. In essence, their brains reacted as if they were actually living the events they were reading about.
2. Disengagement: Reading is most effective for stress
Your brain can’t operate at maximum capacity 24/7—far from it. We all need periods of disengagement to rest our cognitive capabilities and get back to peak functionality.
Tony Schwartz talks about this as one of the most overlooked elements of our lives: Even the fastest racing car can’t win the race with at least one or two great pit stops. The same holds true for ourselves. If we don’t have “pit-stops” built into our days, there is now chance we can race at a high performance.
And reading fiction is among the very best ways to get that disengaged rest. The New Yorker reports that:
Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.
Research at the University of Sussex shows that reading is the most effective way to overcome stress, beating out other methods like listening to music or taking a walk.
Within 6 minutes of silent reading, participants’ heart rates slowed and tension in their muscles eased up to 68%. Psychologists believe reading works so well because the mind’s concentration creates a distraction that eases the body’s stress.
3. Sleep: Regular readers sleep better
In fact, the kind of relaxed disengagement that reading creates can become the perfect environment for helping you sleep.
Creating a sleep ritual is a great way to build up a consistent sleep pattern. One of the key things is to have the last activity completely disengage you from the tasks of the rest of your day.
Buffer’s CEO, Joel, has a ritual in the evening of going for a short walk and, upon returning, going straight to bed and reading a fiction book. He reports that it helps him disengage from the work he’s done in the day and get the sleep he needs to wake up refreshed and ready for the next day.
Serial optimizer Tim Ferriss also believes in the power of reading before bed—fiction only:
“Do not read non-fiction prior to bed, which encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning. Read fiction that engages the imagination and demands present-state attention. Recommendations for compulsive non-fiction readers include Motherless Brooklyn and Stranger in a Strange Land.”
4. Improved relationships: Books are a ‘reality simulator’
Life is complicated. Oftentimes, interpersonal relationships and challenges don’t have the simple resolutions we might like. How can we become more accepting of this reality? By using fiction to explore ideas of change, complex emotions and the unknown.
Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, proposed to the New York Times that reading produces a kind of reality simulation that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”
Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”
Writer Eileen Gunn suggests that reading science fiction, in particular, helps us accept change more readily:
“What science fiction does, especially in those works that deal with the future, is help people understand that things change and that you can live through it. Change is all around us. Probably things change faster now than they did four or five hundred years ago, particularly in some parts of the world.”
5. Memory: Readers have less mental decline in later life
We know that hearing a story is a great way to remember information for the long-term.
Now there’s also evidence that readers experience slower memory declined later in life compared to non-readers. In particular, later-in-life readers have a 32 percent lower rate of mental decline compared to their peers.
In addition to slower memory decline, those who read more have been found to show less characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2001 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
6. Inclusivity: Stories open your mind
Can reading Harry Potter make us more inclusive, tolerant and open-minded? One study says yes. (A butterbeer toast for everyone!)
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology,tested whetherthenovelsofHarryPottercouldbeused asatoolforimprovingattitudestowardstigmatizedgroups.
After 3 experiments in which students read passages of the books about discrimination, the students showed changed attitudes about everything from immigrants to gay students.
Mic reports that “the researchers credited the books with improving readers’ ability to assume the perspective of marginalized groups. They also claimed that young children, with the help of a teacher, were able to understand that Harry’s frequent support of “mudbloods” was an allegory towards bigotry in real-life society.”
There’s no doubt that books can open your mind. This great, short TED talk by Lisa Bu shows just how much:
7. Vocabulary: Fiction readers build more language
We all want the kind of vocabulary that can help us express ourselves and connect with others.
Fiction can help you get there. A 2013 Emory University compared the brains of people after they read fiction (specifically, Robert Harris’ Pompeiiover nine nights) to the brains of people who didn’t read.
The brains of the readersshowed more activity in certain areas than those who didn’t read—especially the left temporal cortex, the part of the brain typically associated with understanding language.
The website testyourvocab.com analyzed millions of its test-takers to discover the somewhat expected conclusion that reading more builds a bigger vocabulary. What was less expected was how much of a difference the type of reading made: Fiction readers were significantly more likely to have a larger vocabulary:
The study noted: “That fiction reading would increase vocabulary size more than just non-fiction was one of our hypotheses — it makes sense, after all, considering that fiction tends to use a greater variety of words than non-fiction does. However, we hadn’t expected its effect to be this prominent.”
8. Creativity: Fictions allows for uncertainty (where creativity thrives!)
In the movies, we often long for a happy ending. Have you noticed that fiction can be much more ambiguous?
That’s exactly what makes it the perfect environment for creativity. A study published in Creativity Research Journal asked students to read either a short fictional story or a non-fiction essay and then measured their emotional need for certainty and stability.
Researchers discovered that the fiction readers hadless need for “cognitive closure” than those who read non-fiction, and added:
“These findings suggest that reading fictional literature could lead to better procedures of processing information generally, including those of creativity.”
9. Pleasure: Reading makes you happier
All the above factors are great. But the very biggest reason I try to read every single day? I love it. It makes me happy, and I’m not alone—a survey of 1,500 adult readers in the UK found that 76% of them said reading improves their life and helps to make them feel good.
Other findings of the survey are that those who read books regularly are on average more satisfied with life, happier, and more likely to feel that the things they do in life are worthwhile.
It’s fascinating to me to think about how much has changed in American life and media during the years in the chart below, published by Pew. Somehow reading for pleasure has been able to hang in there throughout—even with the advent of the Internet, smart phones and so many more attention-zapping inventions.
It must be doing something good for us!
Over to you!
Can you tell a difference in yourself when you take some time out to read fiction? What are some of your favorite books or genres for reading?
I’d love to hear all your thoughts and recommendations in the comments!