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Op-ed

Read like the Republic depends on it — because it does

Not an easy feat for a millennial.

Book photo: Luis Portugal via Getty Images | Social Media Icon: Blaze Media

"It's so nice to see someone reading," a waitress said to my husband. He was waiting for me alone at a café while I was having my nails manicured.

He found her enthusiasm peculiar yet complimentary, and he chuckled when he told me what she had said to him. Perhaps it was the shock of witnessing a book instead of an iPhone between the fingers of a millennial.

My husband could have narrowly been among the 6% of Americans who read digital books only, but he's not, and neither am I.

It's not difficult to guess why the sight of a book in my husband's hand made the waitress hazard a comment: Books are threatening to go the way of 8-tracks, VHS players and rotary telephones.

The number of Americans who willingly read has declined since the 1980s, partly due to the advent of television, the internet, and, one could argue, the torrent of 24/7 push notifications in the palm of our hands.

In 2017, the Academy of American Arts & Sciences showed that voluntary reading rates hit a record-low among American adults.

Outside of work and school, 53% of adults in 2017 read at least one nonfiction or fiction book for personal interest.

In the same degree, those who are reading spend an average of 17 minutes per day doing so.

The time spent with books daily is even less among younger Americans between the ages of 15 and 44. They leaf through books about 10 minutes per day.

Contrast the year 2017 with the year 1992 when at least 61% of American adults read at least one book for personal interest per year.

As the survey noted, that's a 14% drop in reading rates among Americans within 25 years.

With these statistics in mind, it's no wonder that the sight of a millennial holding an actual book would elicit comment from a total stranger — a stranger who was probably more used to seeing people glued to the ever-present smartphone.

For better or for worse, smartphones have entirely re-conditioned our bodily autonomy. We feel utterly vulnerable without them, and replacing them with anything else, much less a book, feels like a coup d 'état.

To that I say, "Vive la résistance!" Books — and the power they provide — are so much more beneficial to our actual well-being than smartphones — which science suggests may be causing serious addiction and physical problems among younger generations in particular.

Take, for example, the unhealthy and unnecessary obsession our smartphones create. When we're away from them, we're physically stressed.

Research by Dr. Nancy Cheever at California State University observed the effects they have on us using equipment to measure the heart rates and perspiration levels of two teenage girls.

"I'm just going to put your phones back here because they might interfere with the equipment a little bit," she told them. They had no idea Cheever was measuring the physiological changes their bodies experience in the absence of their smartphones.

While the two were attached to Cheever's equipment, she began texting and calling the girls' cellphones so they could hear the alerts.

Cheever recorded sweating and increased levels of stress and anxiety that were four times higher than that of an adult who had participated in the same experiment. Prior to smartphones, the leading cause of stress among students was poverty.

Studies have also shown that excessive usage leads to less sleep, lower self-esteem, shorter attention spans, memory loss, a lack of creativity, and decreased analytical skills.

The paradox is that the benefits reading provides are antithetical to the effects smartphones impose, yet we care more for the latter.

For starters, reading reduces stress, helps slow down the process of memory loss, contributes to a healthy night's sleep, and most importantly, increases empathy.

Analysis has also shown that those who read are also more likely to remain civic-minded and engaged in democracy.

In one of the most comprehensive studies on reading by the National Endowment for the Arts, research showed that reading contributed directly to good citizenship.

Proficient readers are twice as likely to participate in volunteer work, are more likely to vote, and are more likely to maintain a greater curiosity surrounding current events.

NEA made it clear that while the study can't prove there's causation, the interest group is positive there's a correlation:

"With lower levels of reading and writing ability, people do less well in the job market. Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement. Significantly worse reading skills are found among prisoners than in the general adult population. And deficient readers are less likely to become active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting."

Additionally, in 2003, 84% of Americans proficient in reading voted in the 2000 presidential election while only 53% of nonreaders showed up to the polls.

If the benefits of reading are a win-win for everyone, why are so many of us doing so little of it?

One could argue too many Americans are ignorant to the benefits they provide. In Matthew Arnold's "Culture and Anarchy" (1869), Arnold argues that reading "the best that has been thought and said" is the panacea to our cultural deficiencies.

Humanities professors could also be at fault for misconstruing what reading was intended for.

Rather than teaching students to utilize books as a tool to refine their minds and their beliefs, students are taught to tear down astute observations by criticizing them, rejecting them, and reducing them to outdated rubbish.

This nihilistic approach to some of the greatest works of our time creates a backward culture by creating a faulty illusion that critical thinking is supposed to be about destroying instead of building.

This robs the individual of their agency by preventing them from obtaining meaningful convictions and values. This approach also produces a society that believes in empty nothingness.

Ultimately, no one can attain erudition for you but you.

One last thing…
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