October 5, 2021

Library lovers live longer! Startling study cited


An illustration from a scholarly journal about the link between book reading and longevity. The chart shows that, uh, the chart illustrates the article. Courtesy of Elsevier.

We were lazing about our pied a terre on a weekend day, stunned by overconsumption of The Anatomy of Melancholy—or was it pro football?—scrolling through what a former world leader once called “the information superhighway,” when we alighted upon a delightful item that somehow had escaped our notice. According to a Washington Post article from that innocent year 2016, book lovers live longer than non-readers. Louder, for those in the back: BOOK LOVERS LIVE LONGER THAN NON-READERS.

Well then! We sat up a little straighter, almost feeling the vitality of an enhanced lifespan percolating through our weary veins. “Book readers,” the article continued, “survive almost two years longer than those who didn’t crack open a book.” The scientific source for this startling news was an article in volume 164 of The Journal of Social Science and Medicine titled “A Chapter a Day: Association of Book Reading with Longevity.”

We consider ourselves stout consulters of primary sources, skeptical of mass media paraphrases, so we decided to take a look. We jumped right in and read:

A dose-response survival advantage was found for book reading by tertile (HRT2 = 0.83, p < 0.001, HRT3 = 0.77, p < 0.001), after adjusting for relevant covariates.

Hahaha what?! Um … OK! Retreating hastily to the safety of the Post, we read on. The author of the essay, Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Amy Nutt, also mentioned a corollary study that suggested that book readers, or at least readers of fiction, experience higher levels of empathy. We seem to recall hearing about this, vaguely, so we dutifully clicked over to an article from Trends in Cognitive Sciences, by Keith Oatley, and were stunned to find ourselves immediately sucked into a postmodernist swamp of radical deconstructionist praxis.

“Fiction,” Prof. Oatley breezily asserts, “is the simulation of selves in interaction,” and relies on “processes such as inference and transportation that occur during literary reading.” Haha what? Holy displaced signifier! We don’t recall Dr. Johnson putting it this way! A … simulation of the self? This sounds positively Continental! Disconcerted, we spent a few moments lost in an online edition of the Biographia Literaria, seeking bluff Coleridgean solace, but there was none to be had.

Returning to the Post article yet again, like errant, easily distracted sheepdogs, we read that “just like a healthy diet and exercise, books appear to promote a ‘significant survival advantage.'” Hmm. Some of us over here at John Street are not maybe super-big fans of either healthy diet or exercise, so we will stick to the good news! We wonder … if reading books confers longer life, might there be a proportionally greater lifespan windfall associated with making books!? Now that would be some good news!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.