There are uncountable articles online about why reading is good for you, and specifically about why reading fiction is good for you. I’m not going to repeat any of the empirical evidence or clinical facts about how reading is good (although it definitely does exist). Instead, I’d like to share my own personal experience with reading.
Reading, for me, began as a way to alleviate boredom. As a young child, I grew up in a sheltering home that provided everything I could want, but also simultaneously shielded me from risk. This shielding at times hampered my childish curiosity and desire for risk and adventure. I would often sit at home, staring up at the northern Utah mountains, wishing I was trekking through the high forest groves, finding unexpected nooks and crannies, climbing trees, making friends with bears, etc. However, my parents didn’t really have time to cater to those fantasies, and so I mitigated my yearning with reading.
As time went on, I settled into the circumstances that my life lead me into, and I became more independent so I could fulfill more of my own desires. As a young adult, I have gone on many mountain adventures, explored many nooks, and even met exactly one bear. The initial desires that drove me to read have been satisfied (and continue to be satisfied on a regular basis), but I had formed the habit. I continued to pick up books and chug through them on a regular basis, and I began to notice an interesting effect that reading was having on my mind.
Like so many people, I live in an over stimulating environment. I eat tasty food, listen to music with emotional riffs, play exciting video games, get involved in passionate discussions, worry about bills, and watch interesting films. Most of my life, I am in a state of emotional excitement of some kind or another. My mind is an anxious torrent of ideas, each displacing the last more quickly than I am capable of inspecting them.
The medium of literature demands that you focus your eyes and mind on the words and ideas of another person, that you take the time to figure out what they’re saying. When I read, my chaotic emotions are pushed to the periphery of my attention. There they can rest and, basically, just chill the heck out. It’s very similar to mindfulness meditation (which I also recommend for quieting the anxieties caused by overstimulation), except that you also get to have some fun while doing it.
There are a couple things you have to bring in order to have this benefit though. First, you have to read deeply. This means reading every word, comprehending every sentence, and building up the entire meaning of the author in your mind. Avoid reading first sentences and then skipping through the rest of the paragraph. To enjoy the calming benefits of reading, the reader has to try and fully comprehend the text.
Secondly, read books that don’t dumb it down. Get books that require in depth reading, that ask a little bit more of you. I don’t mean that they should be difficult or confusing to read, but instead that they simply ask that you pay full attention. Read books that require more than minimum effort to get the point of the story. This doesn’t mean they have to be literary classics (although I do encourage reading those too). Something as fun and easy to get into as Harry Potter will have the same desired effect if read closely. Just read something that respects you and expects you to be smarter than a bag of bricks.
In my life, I’ve found that the ability to turn down the stimulation and put my anxieties out to pasture has been really helpful. Reading novels according to these two guidelines has helped me do that in an enjoyable and consistent way, and I hope it works for other people as well.