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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