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Books for Company: Reading and Wellbeing


Have you ever found yourself on a train or waiting for a friend, and discovered you don’t have a book on you? The horror! I always keep a paperback or my Kindle on my person, however tiny my bag or busy my schedule for the day might be. I feel anxious without one. What if books and reading offer more than a way to pass the time or keep you company when you’re sitting alone in a cafe? What if they are intrinsically good for us?


Books — and here, I’m talking about fiction or other forms of written story — have been an important part of my life since I was very young. Lifelong readers like me find comfort and inspiration in old picturebooks as much as shiny new paperbacks, often remembering significant stories and reading moments from childhood and drawing pleasure from them well into adulthood.


I remained an avid bookworm into my teenage years and my passion for young adult novels eventually led me to a PhD on the topic and further academic research exploring the power of reading in the context of adolescent mental health. These days, I sink gratefully into narrative worlds conjured by books when my own reality is demanding or dull and I eagerly soak up the new ideas and other lives portrayed within their pages. They often make me feel better.


Reading during difficult times

And I’m not alone. Reading fiction, or reading for pleasure more generally, is claimed by many researchers to have significant benefits for wellbeing. In fact, books and reading are often suggested by healthcare professionals as a form of therapy for individuals facing health challenges or difficult times. A survey of British adults from 2015 found that readers reported fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers and more recently, during the chaos and crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, many young people also reported turning to books to give them a sense of ‘refuge’.


This latter fact is especially significant, since reading amongst children and adolescents has been in decline for decades. Fewer than half of 8-18-year-olds in the UK enjoy reading in their spare time, the lowest figure since 2005; and boys and adolescents are the least likely to admit to reading for pleasure. These data reflect an international picture of decreasing interest in books amongst young people and a turn towards gaming, social media, and other forms of media. At the same time, researchers have revealed increasing rates of adolescent loneliness, anxiety, and other mental health problems in the twenty-first century that reached a high during the pandemic and periods of lockdown.


In 2021, I received funding to run a study exploring how books and a specific form of social reading might help young people cope with those difficult times. I set up a series of virtual book clubs that encouraged teenagers from different parts of England to read a series of contemporary young adult novels and then come together online to talk about them. The choice of books was important — they had to reflect something of the reality of the readers’ own worlds — and the mode of interaction was crucial – so that reading became an activity about belonging. The research from the Reading for Normal project focuses on adolescent needs and responses but it highlights broader ways that books and reading can help all of us stay well.


Bibliotherapy

Books are so brilliant and life-enhancing, they can be prescribed to individuals on the NHS. They can act as a form of non-clinical support to meet the practical, social and emotional needs affecting patients’ health and wellbeing. The Reading Agency’s Reading Well programme is a good example of resources put together by literary and healthcare professionals, offering a series of booklists designed for readers of different ages to help improve mood or understand their mental health.


The list designed for young adults contains mostly information books, but also includes fiction featuring characters who have particular physical or mental health conditions — such as chronic pain, anxiety, or body dysmorphia. These stories can go further in offering individual readers guidance and solace as well as information.

In the Reading for Normal Book Club, some of the young people shared that they had experienced panic attacks and they found it useful to read about a character like Jimmy, in Alice Oseman’s I Was Born for This, who describes his social anxiety and panic attacks in detail. In other words, reading can help us improve our wellbeing literacy generally, but if we are also trying to manage our health, the right books can subtly point us in the direction of appropriate self-help methods and provide reassuring representations of people like us, going through the same kind of things.


However, a warning note should be sounded. For acute or chronic conditions, books can only act as complementary tools alongside professional care and advice; they can’t replace other forms of treatment. In some cases, reading about disorders can trigger discomfort and — if the book being read includes unhelpful portrayals — even lead to harm.


So, what about a less clinical approach…?


Empathy and social reading

Wellbeing extends beyond specific healthcare needs to include a general quality of life. It can mean finding a sense of purpose and meaning. Books are especially effective in equipping us for a life lived well in this respect, especially if we spend time reflecting on their impact and meaning after we have read them.


Wellbeing is tied to feeling connected to others. Again, books are excellent tools. For a start, stories involve characters and often lead us deep into emotional worlds in ways that mimic real-world interactions and, potentially, improve feelings of empathy. Thinking about the needs of others, as well as understanding cultural or political difference, puts us in a great place for engaging with real people.


Finally, books offer up a range of inherently interactive opportunities that bring benefits. Book clubs, literary festivals, BookTok, Goodreads — these are all examples of reading as a social activity. And talking about books together is good for us. This is true for the very oldest in our society, who face severe levels of loneliness and who can find community and meaning in reading together. It can also be true for young people.


In the Reading for Normal Book Club, the teenage participants related their own feelings of isolation during periods of pandemic lockdown and explained how they found points of connection with each other through reading — as they recognised cultural references and identified with characters in books like Danielle Jawando’s And the Stars were Burning Brightly. One reflected on how it was important to find company through the online book discussions, "bothfrom people who [were] sitting in the meeting and also from the characters of the books".


It may be worth questioning the claims that researchers who love reading themselves make about the power of books — perhaps its just too attractive a proposition. But books are increasingly viewed as a crucial ingredient for a better world. And that – more than being stuck on a train with nothing to read — is definitely the world I want to be living in.



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