As reading for leisure loses its popularity, Ross Walsh asks what the effects may be for society.

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GEORGE R. R. Martin once wrote “a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge”. Tyrion Lannister is often regarded as one of the smartest characters in both the book series A Song of Ice and Fire and the television series based on it, the hugely popular Game of Thrones. In this quote, the character’s intelligence shines through. For most people, intelligence is not something they are naturally born with. It is cultivated throughout life, through experiences and, for those in third-level education, great effort.

One of the most important methods we have of improving our minds is to read. Books open us up to new worlds, and with them new experiences that can build upon our own and broaden the ways in which we comprehend the world. Furthermore, books are where we record our history, our culture, and the views of our society at the time that they are written. Those wishing to gain an insight into the past, the present, or peoples’ hopes for the future need only look to the literature and take from it what they will. Given all this, the importance of books to society cannot be overstated.

“We must ask what people are losing when technology replaces our literature”.

Unfortunately, we now appear to have entered a ‘Post-Literature Era’. Every month of 2016, the sale of books, newspapers, and other reading material fell. The culprits behind this drop are easy to see, the internet being chief among them. Nearly all of the information that we can gleam from the contents of our libraries can now be found floating around on the web.

The prices of books does not help matters either. A vicious cycle has been created in the publishing world. Less books are being bought, so prices rise to cover the costs, and then even less books are bought.

Finally, aspects of childhood cannot be ignored on this issue. Where once a child had only two options to use up their free time, reading or going outside, there are now a multitude of different entertainment options available. Many children now, rather than pick up a book, will sit in front of a television, browse the Internet, or play on some form of games console. Although certain benefits have been showing from playing video games in moderation, such as improved decision-making abilities, we must ask what people are losing when technology replaces our literature.

Given all the benefits of reading books, from childhood to adulthood, it is clear that the absence of it will lead to the absence of those benefits. There are those who fear that the combination of an ‘autocorrect’ function on many electronic devices and the steady decrease in reading by children will negatively impact on children’s spelling and grammatical abilities. This will obviously present them with problems in the future, should they find themselves without such a crutch.

“The greatest benefits of reading are the life lessons contained within the pages of those books”.

A 2014 study from Emory University found that reading during childhood is associated with greater empathy and improved cognitive function. The physical act of reading a print book, as opposed to an electronic version, can increase spatial awareness.

Research from the University of California shows that reading can make you smarter (proving Tyrion’s point), reduce stress levels, improve analytical thinking and memory, increase your vocabulary and improve your writing skills. Those who read more as children have also been shown to earn more as adults.

Leaving all of this aside, the greatest benefits of reading are the life lessons contained within the pages of those books. Even in works of fiction, what we learn by reading is applicable to the real world. These stories teach children that good will always triumph over evil, but only if they, the protagonist of their own story, stand up for what they believe in and what’s right.

The dwindling passion for literature in today’s society is truly a negative development. As books fade from their lives, our children won’t just suffer in school but they will be less enriched in all aspects of their lives.

Their understanding of technology will no doubt surpass our own, and perhaps that will stand to them as tech giants like Apple and Google come to further dominate the jobs market. However, in the process, we may lose the next generation of authors, songwriters and poets. Our creative arts, an aspect of our society that is uniquely human, will slowly be lost. The Nobel Prize for Literature may one day be un-awarded. Future generations, without books to learn from, may be less empathetic, less imaginative, less eloquent and more stressed.

This is why reading must once again be encouraged among young people. Reading books doesn’t just make for better people. It makes for a better world.