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Perhaps the perfect summer afternoon for me is sitting on a beautiful Florida beach next to my dog Nala with a book in my hand. Reading is one of my greatest pleasures in life and doing so in beautiful surroundings is close to nirvana. Shawn Achor, a renowned leader in the field of positive psychology, reports that spending even brief periods doing things we love produces enduring improvements in happiness. How do I know this? I just read it in his book, while on the beach. Please consider adding Shawn’s The Happiness Advantage to your summer reading list.

Another of my all-time favorite activities was reading to my children when they were little. My youngest daughter Ruby graduated from college last weekend. She and I were reminiscing about how many evenings we spent next to each other in bed reading together. She is now as voracious a reader as I.

The tradition of summer reading in America took off in the late 1800s as literacy rates increased, time for leisure grew, and the price of books decreased. As I discuss here (PDF), the end of the 19th century was also a period of significant improvements in health in America. The link between health and knowledge (PDF) is well established and something I have written about previously.

Though reading novels on summer vacation may not have been the only reason for longer lifespans, it’s hard to deny the role that literacy plays in creating health and prosperity. The more we read, both fiction and nonfiction, the healthier and happier we’ll be as individuals and a nation. To quote the host of Reading Rainbow, “you don’t have to take my word for it.” Thanks to the researchers who’ve studied the impact of reading and literacy on the human brain and the American economy, the benefits are unequivocally proven.

Reading, Health and Innovation

The ability to read health information and follow medication instructions — when to take the medication, how to take it, and how much to take — is one way that reading directly influences or enables health. This, in a nutshell, is basic or functional health literacy. Reading is also critical to medical care and advances in public health. Reading and health — or looked at another way, the written word and the practice of medicine — have evolved together across human history. Hippocrates’ advice on the care of infants and children was recorded by hand between 430 and 330 B.C.1 By the 19th century, when the first modern children’s hospital was founded in France, thousands of medical treatises on the care of children had been published.2 Today, anyone with access to the internet can find extensive and varied information on children’s health, from descriptions of illnesses to the results of sophisticated studies.

I spent many hours in college immersed in biology and chemistry textbooks to prepare for medical school. As an English literature major, I also spent many hours reading poetry and novels. Not many premed students major in English literature. In fact, according to the American Medical Association, most major in biological, physical or social sciences. But in my experience, reading literature is fundamental to critical thinking and creativity. The imagery and analogies of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, my favorite work of literature, have helped me as a clinician and biomedical researcher. As David Epstein explains in Range, citing studies in analogical thinking by psychologists and economists, the ability to think in analogies is critical to problem-solving and innovation.3 And a 2013 study by researchers at Emory University using fMRI scans suggests that reading immersive, narrative fiction increases connectivity in key areas of the brain and may have a lasting impact on brain function.

Literacy and the Economy

A 2020 study (PDF) from Gallup and the Barbara Bush Foundation for Literacy found that improving literacy among those with the lowest reading proficiency could add more than $2 trillion per year to the U.S. economy. According to the study, the additional income individuals can earn when they possess higher levels of literacy would drive most of the $2 trillion increase. Reading skills and a love for reading are instilled in early childhood and elementary school — when students must shift from “learning to read to reading to learn (PDF).” Yet, according to the Nation’s Report Card by the National Center for Education Progress, measures of reading proficiency among 4th and 8th graders dropped between 2017 and 2019.

Fortunately, summer reading prevents students from falling behind year to year, and it can be as effective as summer school at maintaining and building reading skills. Brain scans show that intensive reading instruction can improve the quality of gray matter, effectively “rewiring” the brain and improving reading ability. In addition to school-based reading programs, 97% of libraries increase youth programming in the summer, from summer reading contests to storytime.

Reading for Pleasure, Reading for Life

Simply put, reading well means reading often. Time spent reading for fun has decreased for many American children. It’s important to remember that children are more likely to read about topics they’re interested in (according to this study, many are interested in books about pop culture). In other words, the fact that a child is reading matters more than what they are reading. And while I think the best way to encourage children to read for fun is to model the behavior, I’m not opposed to a little healthy competition and incentivization. As one librarian explains, “I have had several parents tell me that having prizes for the number of books read helped motivate their children” and that their children became more prone to read as a result.

From Benjamin Franklin’s pedantic admonishments to read to Oprah Winfrey’s book club, many famous people have shown that a love for reading in childhood can help us overcome challenges, thrive and contribute to our communities.

About Dr. Moss

R. Lawrence Moss, MD, FACS, FAAP is president and CEO of Nemours Children’s Health. Dr. Moss will write monthly in this space about how children’s hospitals can address the social determinants of health and create the healthiest generations of children.