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Why Do We Still Read Books?

Humans appear to have a primal need for narrative and the written word.

Key points

  • People predicted that reading books would become extinct due to digital technology.
  • Reading books has remained a popular activity in the Digital Age.
  • Reading appears to be a basic human drive rooted in cognition.

As it became clear in the 1990s that digital culture would transform everyday life, many critics predicted that books would go the way of the horse and buggy. Books, and print culture in general, would soon be seen as anachronisms in a world in which information was sent and received by more advanced technology, they held, echoing experts who expressed a similar opinion when television appeared a half-century earlier.

Print culture has not become obsolete, however, and reading books, both as hard copies and in digital form, remains a popular activity. In fact, book sales have been robust in recent years, partly due to the pandemic. Sales of print books rose 9 percent in 2021, according to Publishers Weekly, and the market has remained strong since then.

Why is this so? What is it about books, which have been around in some form since 500 BC (as hand-written scrolls) that make them an essential feature of the human condition?

Bright minds have offered some answers to these questions, one of them being Carmen Martin Gaite, who expressed her views in 1989. “Reading provides insight into a secret world that liberates one from the hostile pressures of the environment, from the routines and deceptions that the confrontation with reality produces,” she wrote, having experienced that special feeling at an early age.

It was ironic that this “prize awarded by reading,” as Gaite described it, was being recognized and appreciated at a time when sitting down with a book was already being seen by some as an antiquated, even absurd practice. The concentration required by deliberate reading afforded a sense of calm in an increasingly frenetic world, Gaite held, considering the chance to escape from the noise and chaos and embrace solitude “a miraculous feat.”

In his 1988 Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, Victor Nell said much the same thing. Reading was for Nell, as he began his book, “as rousing, colorful and transfiguring as anything out there in the real world” and a rare opportunity to “acquire peace, become more powerful, and feel braver and wiser.”

Alongside such musings, Nell provided statistics drawn from clinical research that lent evidence to his argument that reading offered psychological benefits to those who took the time to do it. Reading was not just a joyful experience but a nearly universal one, he pointed out, implying that there was a basic human drive to both produce and consume narrative. Losing oneself in a book, as the title of his suggested, was good for both brain and body, the research showed—something that devoted readers already knew.

The questioning of the role of reading in the digital age provoked a flurry of thoughts that offered keen insights into why people chose to spend their valuable time looking at words in a book or on a screen. Why read rather than watch a film, listen to music, or take a walk in the park?

Barbara Herrnstein Smith asked that good question and provided some equally good answers. For her, reading was essentially a certain kind of scanning of the environment, i.e., a visual attempt to determine what was good or bad out there in the world. People scan the environment all the time in such a way, a natural instinct to assess signs to gain information that might be useful.

As a cognitive activity, reading could serve all kinds of purposes, with particular ones contingent on the motive of the individual in relation to the material. “What reading can do depends on who is doing the reading as much as on what is being read,” Smith wrote, with “personal, cultural, and intellectual histories, distinctive situations, interests, and anxieties, and distinctive physiologies, including brain wiring,” entering the equation.

Durable, resilient, and somehow resistant to external forces, reading at its core remains a fundamental human endeavor, and reports of its impending death are greatly exaggerated. Reading books, whether fiction, non-fiction, or everything in between, is not just a sanctuary from the cultural storm but a healing, therapeutic agent that appears to be based in brain chemistry.

Facebook image: Miljan Zivkovic/Shutterstock


Nell, Victor. (1988). Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Samuel, Lawrence R. (2024). Literacy in America: A Cultural History of the Past Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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