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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: More Americans reaping benefits of reading

The Columbian
Published: May 16, 2024, 6:03am

Maybe it’s the rain, which keeps many of us indoors for months out of the year. Or perhaps it’s the thoughtful, bookish demeanor that permeates denizens of the Northwest.

Whatever the reasons, it is no surprise that regional residents are prominent readers, as detailed in a recent story by Columbian reporter Sarah Wolf about a thriving Barnes & Noble outlet in Vancouver.

“We definitely are seeing more people in store now than we have for probably the last five years,” assistant manager Patty Baumann said.

Yes, brick-and-mortar bookstores retain a place in American commerce and culture, despite a variety of challenges. Primary among those difficulties is the emergence of Amazon, which was founded in 1994 as an online bookseller. The Seattle-based company has grown into the world’s second-largest retailer (behind Walmart), selling everything from live insects to a game-worn baseball jersey listed at $623,633. But it also sells nearly half the print books in the United States.

Beyond the competition between online sellers and those with storefronts, the important thing is that Americans appear to be reading more than they did a couple years ago — following years of decline. According to Pew Research Center, 6 percent more urban adults said they read a book in 2022 than in 2019. And the Northwest is at the forefront of that trend.

In 2022, one survey ranked Seattle as the nation’s second-best city for book lovers, with Portland at No. 6. Other surveys have had similar results, and a report from Amazon some years ago ranked the cities first and second in terms of online book purchases.

For decades, in fact, Portland has been notable among readers thanks to the presence of Powell’s Books, which claims to be the world’s largest independent bookstore. Even non-bibliophiles likely are familiar with Powell’s; it is one of the metro area’s standard destinations when out-of-town guests come to visit.

The topic of books and reading, however, goes beyond the economic impact or the self-satisfaction of believing we are well-read.

Scientific studies have identified numerous benefits to reading books, including a longer average lifespan, reduced stress, less cognitive decline and improved critical thinking skills. Other studies have suggested that reading leads to an increase in charitable giving and even a tendency to vote.

Each of those can enhance our society, but another asset is particularly notable. As a 2013 study published in Science magazine detailed, reading literary fiction can improve our empathy.

“Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies,” the authors of the study wrote.

And as Discover magazine added in 2020: “Of course, asserting that reading can fix the world’s problems would be naïve at best. But it could help make it a more empathetic place. And a growing body of research has found that people who read fiction tend to better understand and share in the feelings of others — even those who are different from themselves.”

At a time when humans have difficulty finding common ground, that seems particularly relevant. At a time when books have become yet another wedge in our culture wars, it seems absolutely essential.

As George R.R. Martin, author of the books that were adapted into “Game of Thrones,” reputedly said: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”