A stack of books with the text Reading is Back over the top

Why Are More People Reading Books in 2023?

I look up from my book to scan the audience of parents. We sit in a large room with chairs off to one side as our children take a karate class in a local dojo. There are probably twenty parents in the room, and I note that four others are reading books. I’m both shocked and interested. Why are people putting down their phones and picking up books?

It’s an interesting question because we’ve seen a downturn in mental health over the past decade. The World Health Organization reports a 13% rise in mental health disorders and substance abuse since 2017. That’s a significant jump, one that I think we can all feel personally. This decline in our quality of life has us reaching for something real, tangible, and grounding. From what I can see, many people are returning to books as a way of feeling human.

Let’s consider why we read. From my estimation, there are two reasons.

First, to gather information. Our busy little minds are hungry for interesting ideas. Second, we read to get away from our cares and worries. A good book helps us replace our worries with a sense of wonder.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that books are no longer needed. The internet is far more effective at delivering information and entertainment. You can now chat with artificial intelligence on complex ideas ranging from economic expansion to the rights and wrongs of political correctness. You can attend the so-called “YouTube University” and become an expert on any topic within two to five minutes. I say this lightly because while I find YouTube helpful for learning to change your car oil or patch a hole in the wall, it’s not a substitute for real education and critical thinking.

If the internet is such a useful tool, why am I seeing a resurgence of people reading books? Why are local bookstores making a comeback when their futures looked so bleak just a few years ago?

I believe there are four reasons for this.

First, people are craving an offline experience. We’re writing more in journals, learning to garden, and we’re reinvesting in analog hobbies like vinyl records and the art of film photography. All of these resurfaced trends bear the same message – that we’re tired of looking at screens and sitting in cubicles. The screens and social platforms that keep our daily attention have prevented us from going out and living our lives. Turning off the television and picking up a copy of Crime and Punishment feels right on a tactile and emotional level. When you step into Raskolnikov’s world, you step out of the Matrix.

Second, I believe humans crave a challenge. In his book, What is Literature?, philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte argues that a writer’s job is not to distract you from the cares of your life but to challenge you to live life anew. While he was very set on this idea, almost to the point that he felt literature written for entertainment was debauchery, I can see his point. I’m not as staunch here. But the idea is captivating — if you write something, your words better express a thought that will expand the human consciousness rather than cloud it, for clouding is a waste of time. What we need is more clarity.

I would argue the same is true for the reader. While I enjoy a good piece of distracting fiction as well as the next man, I much prefer a book that challenges my abilities, my character, and most importantly, my world views. While a movie or the internet can challenge me, it’s different. Their influential effect rarely sticks long-term in my memory. I think that’s because a message from these digital platforms is fleeting. I’m inundated with ads, links, and other interesting articles. It’s the expansiveness and the ease of information that makes the internet a den of unfocused rabbit holes. And no, it’s not lost on me that you’re reading my essay while on the internet. I see the irony.

Concerning movies, I find the experience too centered on entertainment and what will keep the crowds watching. The editors of these films always leave out critical details in favor of “keeping your attention.” This often creates a very broad, shallow, and fast-paced experience, whether the movie is a blockbuster attempt to display Marie Antoinette’s life or a YouTube video on why you should read Nitzsche.

There is little room for immersion.

A book, on the other hand, suggests by its nature that you are about to learn something important and you had better pay attention. There will be no distracting ads or calls to action. Instead, there will be a critical conversation between you and the author. And if you’re intelligent, you’ll have a notepad to augment the learning process.

We crave this deeper level of challenge. Our brains are tired of the atrophy. They need something truly complex to consider, and I believe people are returning to books because books are best suited to create such a learning environment.

The third reason people are returning to books is their lack of focus and patience. For years, the digital landscape has claimed pieces of our attention. When I look at my own attention span, it often feels like a mirror dropped on the cement. There are thousands of fragmented shards, all reflecting something of my life, but until I put them back together, I cannot see the whole image. The effect is that there is little left for us to have any personal sanctuary. Our mental health has turned into mental illness at every turn. The onslaught of email, notifications, and vibrating phones is enough to make one go mad.

We’ve backed ourselves into a corner, and now we’re trying to find a way out.

Our children are seeing this, and they’re responding with movements like “Quiet Quitting,” which is a trend to let go of ambition and corporate advancement. They’ve resigned themselves to “not trying” because to do so would plunge them deeper into the rat race of this unfocused and busy-for-nothing world. They look at their working parents and see little to no reward for the hectic lifestyle. So why try? They’re tired of a troubled society, one in which people can’t focus, and when they try, they focus on things that don’t matter.

A book provides the solution. It requires you to retrain your ability to focus. At first, reading a book is almost impossible. You’ll miss entire pages and sometimes entire chapters, and you’ll have to reread them several times. And then, one day, your brain reawakens, and you can read a page and be fully immersed. It’s like someone unlocked the gate and let you back into your own head.

Many people tell me they don’t read because they can’t keep their attention. To them, I would say read every day for 15 minutes. In two weeks, you’ll have your focus back, and you’ll feel centered once again.

The best analogy I can think of is to learn a new language. With the Internet and television, you learn at a superficial level, much like you would using an app to teach you French. But with a book, you get full immersion into the subject, much like living in Paris. Our brains need immersion to regain our ability to focus.

Finally, I believe people are returning to books for the simple pleasure of slowing down and appreciating life. When you read a book as though you’re in a conversation, you step away from the hustle culture of more efficiency and more effectiveness. I don’t know why we’ve gotten so bent on being productive 100% of the time. This high level of factory output has left us no space to enjoy the little time we have on this earth.

So let’s return to the karate dojo where five out of twenty people are reading books. That’s 25% of the room. A quarter of the people there were interested in putting down their email and learning something wonderful. Because when you let go of billing more per hour, multi-tasking the day, and impressing the neighbor, you move one step closer to learning about yourself and what you love.

If you haven’t already done so, permit yourself to join us. Find a book that interests you and start reading it with real intent.

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