Words of Wellness
The surprising reasons why reading is good for your health
Not long ago, Linda Khan was sitting by a hospital bed in Houston, feeling ill at ease. Beside her lay her 88-year-old father. His heart was faltering. He needed surgery.
What troubled her almost as much as his health was the fact that all day the two of them had engaged in nothing but depressing small talk. She and her father had always had good conversations, but now he seemed to be sunk in querulous contemplation of his predicament. He talked about the lousy hospital food, the tests, the doctors, the diagnosis, the potential outcomes. The scope of his interests seemed to have shrunk to the size of the room.
That day in the hospital, Khan’s eye fell on a stack of books that people had brought as gifts. Her father had always been a reader, but lately he didn’t have the energy or focus. She picked up Young Titan, Michael Shelden’s biography of Winston Churchill, and started to read it out loud.
Right away, it changed the mood and atmosphere,” she says. That afternoon, Khan read to her father for an hour. It was a relief and a pleasure for both of them. Reading gave Khan a way to connect with her father and help him in a situation that was otherwise out of her hands. Listening allowed her father to travel on the sound of his daughter’s voice, back into the realm of intellectual engagement, where he felt like himself again. “He’s in and out of the hospital a lot now,” Khan says, “and I always read to him.”
That may be just what the doctor ordered. In a 2010 study in the United Kingdom, adults who joined weekly read-aloud groups reported better concentration, less agitation and an improved ability to socialize. The survey’s authors attributed these improvements in part to the “rich, varied, non-prescriptive diet of serious literature” that group members consumed, with fiction encouraging feelings of relaxation and calm, poetry fostering focussed concentration and narratives of all sorts giving rise to thoughts, feelings and memories.
The second-century Greek doctor Antyllus even prescribed daily recitation to his patients, recommending it as a kind of health-giving tonic and insisting that epic verse is good for one’s health.
An epic poem might be a tall order, but in truth, almost any kind of reading to another person can be beneficial. A 2007 study of community reading groups in the UK found that groups had both social and therapeutic benefits for participants. The study’s authors wrote: “Reading a literary text together not only harnesses the power of reading as a cognitive process; it acts as a powerful socially coalescing presence, allowing readers a sense of subjective and shared experience at the same time.”
We are not the only species that benefits from this kind of oral medicine. Dogs do, too, which is why, since 2014, volunteers at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have read to the animals under the group’s care. “Ten or 15 years ago, I was essentially the only person who worked with the neglect and abuse cases,” says Victoria Wells, the organization’s senior manager for behaviour and training. “I used to sit with them, in front of their kennels, and play guitar and sing. I noticed that the dogs who were very fearful, shivering and cowering in the back of their kennels, would slowly creep forwards.”
The dogs’ response to music led to the idea of reading aloud. It was a practical means of allowing a larger number of volunteers to minister to recovering animals. Some volunteers keep the animals apprised of current events by reading the newspaper, some choose children’s books and others prefer adult fiction. On the day I stopped by, a retired opera singer was reading the sci-fi thriller Logan’s Run to half a dozen dogs.
“The fact that it’s not threatening but is attention all the same is what’s most beneficial,” says Wells. “I think it’s that soothing, even tone of voice and the presence of somebody to keep them company that benefits them.”
Readers get rewards, too. For Neil Bush, the late-life hospitalizations of his famous parents, George H. W. and Barbara Bush, became opportunities to repay a debt of gratitude. “When I was a kid, [my mother] would read to me and my siblings,” he told a reporter in the spring of 2018, shortly before his parents’ deaths. With his mother and father in and out of care, he said, “We’ve been reading books about Dad’s foreign policy and, most recently, Mom’s memoir.”
Reading to a spouse, sibling or parent might seem a little peculiar. Right before Linda Kahn started to read to her father, she was tempted to put the book down. It felt odd to presume to read to a man who, for her entire life, had always been strong and independent. She didn’t want him to feel patronized. Her fear was misplaced; they both ended up loving the experience. Like so many others who brave the momentary weirdness of reading to another adult, they were, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, surprised by the joy of it.
Who wouldn’t want that? One night years ago, a friend of mine wandered into his family’s living room after supper and picked up a copy of Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel The Killer Angels. Without thinking much about it, he started to read the preface out loud. Immediately, he was joined by his eldest son, who was about 12 at the time. A moment later, his wife came in, followed by the couple’s two young daughters, who at six and eight were not perhaps the target audience for an introduction to Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain but wanted to be part of a family moment.
Within a few minutes, everyone seemed so comfy and engaged that my friend kept reading. It went on for an hour. He picked up the book again after dinner the next night, and the next, until he had finished it.