Growing Up Surrounded by Books Has a Lasting Positive Effect on the Brain, Says a New Scientific Study

Image by George Red­grave, via Flickr Com­mons

Some­where in the annals of the internet–if this sprawl­ing, near-sen­tient thing we call the inter­net actu­al­ly has annals–there is a fine, fine quote by film­mak­er John Waters:

We need to make books cool again. If you go home with some­body and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. Don’t let them explore you until they’ve explored the secret uni­vers­es of books. Don’t let them con­nect with you until they’ve walked between the lines on the pages.
Books are cool, if you have to with­hold your­self from some­one for a bit in order for them to real­ize this then do so.

I like to think all of us here on Open Cul­ture are on the same page as Mr. Waters and there’s rea­son to cel­e­brate: researchers at the Aus­tralian Nation­al Uni­ver­si­ty have report­ed that grow­ing up in a house­hold filled with books can lead to pro­fi­cien­cy in lit­er­a­cy, numer­a­cy, and infor­ma­tion com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy, even if you don’t go on to uni­ver­si­ty.

Basi­cal­ly, being around books is good for you.

You can read the full study by Joan­na Siko­ra here at Social Sci­ence Research, which used data from 160,000 adults from 31 coun­tries. The data came from a sur­vey that asked peo­ple ages 25 to 65 to think back on being 16 years old. How many books were they sur­round­ed by at home dur­ing that time?

The aver­age num­ber at home was 115 books, though in Nor­way the aver­age size was 212 books and in Turkey it was 27. Need­less to say, no mat­ter the size of the library, hav­ing books in the home was a good thing. The research­es also found that lit­er­a­cy rates climbed as the num­ber of books climbed, but at some point–350 books to be exact–these rates plateau’d.

In com­par­i­son, a per­son who had not grown up around books but had earned a uni­ver­si­ty degree wound up being just as lit­er­ate as some­one with a large home library and only nine years of school­ing.

Accord­ing to Siko­ra, “Ear­ly expo­sure to books in [the] parental home mat­ters because books are an inte­gral part of rou­tines and prac­tices that enhance life­long cog­ni­tive com­pe­ten­cies.”

What does that bode for a more dig­i­tal future? The study seems to sug­gest that while books are not going away any time soon, it is indeed this book-based lit­er­a­cy that leads many of us to online sites like Open Cul­ture, where we spend our time read­ing arti­cles like this one. (Instead of, you know, watch­ing cat videos or play­ing Fort­nite.)

So the next time you fret that your stack of unread books is a bad thing, don’t wor­ry. It’s doing won­ders for your men­tal health, whether you know it or not.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

RIP Todd Bol, Founder of the Lit­tle Free Library Move­ment: He Leaves Behind 75,000 Small Libraries That Pro­mote Read­ing World­wide

Boston Pub­lic Library Launch­es a Crowd­sourced Project to Tran­scribe 40,000 Doc­u­ments from Its Anti-Slav­ery Col­lec­tion: You Can Now Help

China’s New Lumi­nous White Library: A Strik­ing Visu­al Intro­duc­tion

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (12)
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  • Harold E Higginbotham says:

    I sim­ply note that in this arti­cle, and in the abstract of the study that it describes, and links to above the vari­able of impor­tance is to be _surrounded_ by books in some­thing they call a “book ori­ent­ed” social­iza­tion style, indi­cat­ed by home library size. The notion that actu­al­ly _reading_ these books is not broached, at least not here or in the abstract. This seems to me to indi­cate a like­ly con­found, as the result may be caused by anoth­er fac­tor that attends hav­ing a siz­able home library. The most obvi­ous one would be social class, I’d think. As one moves upward in social class to the upper-mid­dle class at least, the pres­ence of books as mark­ers of class ris­es as well. That would be my sus­pi­cion, at least. If cor­rect, then the pre­dic­tor of the “pos­i­tive effect” on the brain would be social class and the mag­ic totem of the pres­ence of books would be less effec­tive. We want it to be books, because then we can assign suc­cess or fail­ure to the indi­vid­ual, or at least to the indi­vid­u­al’s fam­i­ly. If social class is deter­mini­tive, then we need to engage in com­pli­cat­ed and dif­fi­cult work, both edu­ca­tion­al­ly and polit­i­cal­ly, and we cer­tain­ly don’t want that.

  • Rabi Maharjan says:

    Keep­ing your­self sur­round­ed by books is fas­ten your­self from all sor­rows with­hold humankind authen­ti­cal­ly rather then his­tor­i­cal­ly men­tion once in a time being. Way we do social­iz­ing and up grad­ing mid­dle is bit con­fi­den­cial and deter­mi­tive through­out the peri­od devot­ing their life time worth­while. It is acknowl­edge pos­i­tive vibes goes through brain revolve whole soci­ety into the one bet­ter, hap­py, pros­pe­ri­ous for every crea­ture with­in uni­verse. Beyond with this vir­tu­al life, we were all back in staus quo striv­ing to restore a bit but in a veil.

  • Steven Williams says:

    Researchers found that the more men­tal incite­ment a young­ster gets around the age of four, the more built up the parts of their minds com­mit­ted to dialect and insight will be in the decades ahead.

  • Karl Reitmann says:

    This com­ment makes no sense… looks like you used a ran­dom word gen­er­a­tor in Hin­di then used Google Trans­la­tor to ren­der it into Eng­lish…

  • Gene Engene says:

    Some­thing that’s not tak­en into account is the access to, and the use of, pub­lic libraries. My fam­i­ly moved around a great deal, from the time I was 6, until 11, and lived in a small ‘mobile’ home, that had pre­cious lit­tle room for many books. But I was intro­duced to the pub­lic library at age 7, and was absolute­ly stunned that there could be so many. The first book I ever actu­al­ly owned was an inex­pen­sive copy, but new, of Tom Sawyer, giv­en to me as a 7th birth­day present, which I read in about a day and a half, then reread, and reread, and reread … until I was tak­en to the local library, where the idea of so many books avail­able to be read for FREE just made my day. Addi­tion­al­ly, when we vis­it­ed friends and rel­a­tives, I did have access to a vari­ety of mag­a­zines, that var­ied in con­tent from Fish­ing and Hunt­ing, to mechan­i­cal sub­jects, avi­a­tion, trav­el, home projects and build­ing. There were more mag­a­zines than books, actu­al­ly, and they were much more com­pre­hen­sive in their dis­cus­sions, and bet­ter writ­ten, than now, though I doubt I actu­al­ly appre­ci­at­ed that. The library also pro­vid­ed a more social con­text for read­ing, which the soli­tary envi­ron­ment at home, while both par­ents worked, did not. As life became more set­tled, a few books made their way into a ‘real’ house, most­ly ref­er­ence books to start — a Mer­ri­am-Web­ster Col­le­giate Dic­tio­nary was the first, which intro­duced the for­mal world of words, that has become almost an obses­sion ever since — near­ly 70 years now. I do pos­sess large-ish num­ber of books, now, many yet to be read — but it all start­ed with the pub­lic library. Sad­ly they seem to a much dimin­ished resource in many places. Far too many Carnegie Libraries have been left to dete­ri­o­rate, the build­ing them­selves often aban­doned, when the archi­tec­ture was con­sid­ered ‘too expen­sive’ to main­tain, or restore.

  • Bill W. says:

    Any­one can have books. To be ben­e­fi­cial, they should be GOOD books, and actu­al­ly read. Fitzger­ald dis­cussed books with an “uncracked spine” in the Great Gats­by, and what he was implying„was cor­rect.

  • Mom says:

    Is this real­ly true?

  • Mom says:

    LOL my son slept with a stack of books as young child. Books were clos­er to him than his Ted­dy bear. Always on the hunt for a book in used book­stores, his col­lec­tion grew while he did,to three thou­sand… maybe more. He’s 29 now and it’s help­ful, space wise,that he learned the art of purg­ing and giv­ing books to friends and fam­i­ly.

  • N. J. Cama says:

    I empathise with Gene Engene’s com­ments on the pub­lic library habit and ben­e­fits. A home library is cer­tain­ly good, but the very ‘famil­iar­i­ty’ of its con­tents, both read and UN read, over time tends to dull the edge of the excite­ment of ‘find­ing some­thing new’, which is a major plus in read­ing books! One of my bet­ter mem­o­ries of board­ing school life was our, real­ly quite large, library-cum- read­ing room. And the ver­i­ta­ble shelf-full of Zane Grey’s col­lec­tion of West­erns; red rex­ine bound with titles etched in gold on the bind­ing cov­ers. Many gov­ern­ments fuss and focus on ‘edu­ca­tion’ at pri­ma­ry and advanced lev­els. They might do bet­ter to fund and main­tain high qual­i­ty pub­lic libraries at which young­sters from state fund­ed schools are man­dat­ed to spend school time. Curi­ous young minds will do the rest — bet­ter than many teach­ers!

  • David Kapp says:

    You’ve got (a friend) (in Friends of Cen­tral Library – FOCAL)

    your Eng­lish teacher
    prob­a­bly rebuked you
    for using the word got

    as would my mom
    Eng­lish teacher-activist
    she of the old non-racial sort
    and a Lennon­ist to boot

    You’ve got (a friend)
    right down here
    on the ground
    in the city that is
    not yet for all

    Friends of Cen­tral Library
    – FOCAL if you are
    into acronyms and the like

    advo­cates for the library
    for libraries and books
    and read­ing and all that jazz

    You’ve got a friend
    when you’re down
    and trou­bled and you
    need some lov­ing care

    though I am only there
    (armed with my scrab­ble board)
    once a month for the Poet­ry Cir­cle
    which has been a nur­tur­ing plat­form
    for many a young poet / poet­ess

    they have a Book Room too
    which I have raid­ed often
    for Nan­cy Drews (I kid you not)
    and Nation­al Geo­graph­ics

    You’ve got a friend
    and when you have friends
    you don’t need to
    wor­ry about a thing

    You’ve got a friend
    in Friends of Cen­tral Library

    Penned for a friend­ly, who asked; with a few old­ish dit­ties in mind as you can tell!

  • Joseph Proskauer says:

    Signs of the times?
    A pic­ture of books that is of pic­ture books.
    Mea­sur­ing out­comes “on the brain” . . . based on books around the body.

    If you open a book, it will open you — and enter, way beyond the brain.

    ”A book is a door; on the oth­er side is some­where else . . .
    Books work from the inside out. They are a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen­ing some­where in the soul.”
    From Jeanette Win­ter­son­’s won­der­ful essay, “A Bed, A Book, A Moun­tain;” with essays from nine oth­er authors in “Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!” (Vin­tage Books, 2011).

  • Donna Richardson says:

    Wow, this is clas­sist. We did­n’t own a lot of books when I was a kid because they were an unnec­es­sary expense; we all vis­it­ed the local library twice a week (and both par­ents at some point were board mem­bers at the small local library). I hope the researchers had enough sense to count library books among “at-home” books. Library users are exposed to far more, and a greater vari­ety of, books than those who pile them on their home shelves.

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