Mindful deep reading: the health benefits of reading novels

Jody Thomas illustration of a girl reading

Deep reading, also known as slow reading, is the mindful way of enjoying a novel. Instead of skimming over passages and getting sidetracked by social media, websites and other distractions, slow down and focus on your book.

Stepping into a different world and escaping your daytime drudgery is just one of the many reasons for reading a good novel. But for as long as novels have existed, there have been moralists to warn of their dangers. Late Victorian educationalist Charlotte Mason chided that “the girl who sits for hours poring over a novel, to the damage of her eyes, her brain, and her general nervous system, is guilty of a lesser fault of the nature of suicide.”

Reading has health benefits

Recent research, though, has claimed that rather than inducing a slow death, reading books can actually keep you alive: a study in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that those who read a book for 30 minutes a day had a 23-month survival advantage, regardless of their wealth, education, health or sex. And fascinatingly, this advantage was specific to books. No other reading material did so much good for its readers.

The researchers put this down to two things. First, they said, books encourage “deep reading” in which “the reader draws connections to other parts of the material, finds applications to the outside world, and asks questions about the content presented.” Second, the researchers pointed to books’ capacity to “promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival.”

In utilitarian terms, reading a novel gives your brain a workout – and the processes you’re exercising are those that relate to your relationships in the real world, which leads to better relationships which leads to longer life.

George Eliot, in her 1856 essay The Natural History of German Life went one further, and argued that an ability to envisage other people’s inner lives through writing was a political good that could improve the health of entire nations: “we need a true conception of the popular character to guide our sympathies rightly,” she wrote. Later, she put this theory into practice in her own fiction, where she demanded that even her least appealing characters should get their share of understanding.

Eliot breaks off her narration in chapter 29 of Middlemarch to ask “but why always Dorothea?”, turning away from her bright and beautiful main character to insist that Dorothea’s older, unattractive and much less charming husband Casaubon also “had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us”.

Eliot can pull off such a daring swoop out of straightforward storytelling, of course, because Middlemarch is a brilliant novel: rich in characters, detailed in its evocation of early nineteenth century life, and with a plot that pivots thrillingly on the cascading outcomes of little considered decisions. In other words, the way that Middlemarch does you good is very closely related to the ways that Middlemarch is good.

The joy of reading

Living longer, having better relationships and being a better person are all compelling arguments for reading, but if this is all we read for, we reduce reading to the level of a tedious hygiene task, like flossing your teeth or counting off your five-a-day.

Most of us know, for example, that reading a book is a better way to end the day than watching TV or scrolling through Facebook. There’s a good reason for this: unlike paper, screens produce light, and light stimulates your brain into wakefulness. But it isn’t the promise of sleep that keeps you going back to a book, chapter by chapter, night after night: it’s the pleasure of reading itself. Which is not to dismiss the material presence of books as part of their allure.

While it’s possible to get ereaders without the sleep-denying backlight, and difficult to argue against their convenience, the tactile delight of holding a printed book is a reason to read in itself. An elegant cover, a carefully weighted typeface, alluringly weighty paper stock – the best designed books are objects that can be appreciated in their own right, as well as for their contents.

One major benefit of reading a story in print and not on a connected device such as your phone or tablet is that a book won’t interrupt you with notifications and questions. You won’t even have the temptation to check: a book is a beautifully single-purpose piece of technology, and that purpose is to absorb you in what you’re reading.

Dan Culling is a bookseller at Mr B’s Emporium of Books in Bath, and she says that escapism is one of the most important things that her customers look for in a novel: “The world at the minute is so frantic, the news is so upsetting – so they want a story that is well-written and with characters they can empathise with, that is going to take them to this other world.”

Join a book group

If that makes you think of reading as a pastime of deliberate isolation – Charlotte Mason’s solitary girl straining her nervous system to tatters over a novel – you couldn’t be more wrong.

Book groups have been in the ascendant for many years now, and they offer not only companionship with fellow literary-minded people, but a way to deepen your understanding of the books you share. A book group is “a really good place for people to reconsider,” says Dan. “There might be moments where, depending on how you read or where you’re at when you’re reading, you’ll really focus in on one part of the book whereas someone else will have dragged something else out that you kind of skipped over.”

Online discussion groups mean it’s possible to share your book chat with people who’d never be able to make it to the same room for a monthly meet-up, but booksellers have come up with many more ingenious ways to bring books to you. At Mr B’s, for example, you can arrange a ‘reading spa’ in which Dan or one of her colleagues acts as ‘bibliotherapist’ and gives you a detailed consultation before recommending a selection of books tailored to your tastes and interests.

These can be emotional occasions: “I’ve had people crying, telling me all these really personal stories because of the discussions about books,” she says. “People who come there love books, and books are very special and personal to them.”

Books for therapy

Reading a book is a private experience, but it’s also an act of communication with public words. That’s what makes it so powerful: reading is intimate and exposed at the same time. It can be a place to escape to, or a source of comfort.

Books can be with us in the most difficult times – literally, in the case of the beloved paperback you can slip into your handbag and bring out when you need it. They can be healing, offering consolation to the kind of grief that feels too hard even to talk about.

They are a source of joy: it’s very hard to feel sad when you’re giggling over a Wodehouse, and harder still to resist reading the best bits out to bystanders. And reading can change your life, which means perhaps we should give some credit to the old moralists’ contention that it can be dangerous.

Once you’ve spent the hours with a book that it takes to read it, it’s unlikely that it won’t have some influence on you, after all. So give yourself to a book and see what it can give you in return.

Under every dustjacket is a world to explore, where you can encounter people and ideas that would never enter your life any other way. Even better, you can step into these other worlds any time you like: on your sofa, on a bus or tucked in bed, all you need is a book to make your escape with.

The best thing of all? You’ll come back from your adventure with your brain sharpened, your emotional instincts strengthened, and ready to deal with whatever the real world has to throw at you.

Words by Sarah Ditum. Illustration by Jody Thomas