What are the Benefits of Reading for Pleasure?

Abigail Pineau photoby Abigail Pineau

Abigail is a nursing major living in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Abigail enjoys reading for pleasure, but before researching this essay she “never knew just how impactful it was.” She said that after researching this subject it became “important for me that students and parents know just how impactful pleasure reading is.” In addition to reading, Abigail’s other passion is nursing, as she loves both helping people in need and learning how we function as humans.

As children, we are taught by our parents and teachers that we should read outside of class to get smarter. And so, we read. But do we actually get smarter? I was curious as to what the benefits of pleasure reading are. In my research, I looked for the academic benefits that result from pleasure reading, but I only found a few studies about the academic benefit. What was interesting to me was that most studies and articles were conducted with social and personal benefits of pleasure reading in mind. According to the research I have done, our teachers and parents might have actually been wrong.

In order for pleasure reading to be considered pleasurable, you cannot be forced to read; it must be a personal decision. Jennifer and Ponniah (2015), who focus on the academic benefits of pleasure reading, wrote that if a student does not feel that they have autonomy over their reading choices then it will not be pleasurable to them (p. 3). According to Research Evidence (2012) the more someone reads, the more they like to read, and the more that person will benefit from it (p. 3). I agree with this but it needs to be emphasized that this only works if the reader experiences pleasure. I believe that if you are forced to read, much like academic reading, you will not receive any of these benefits. You need to be excited to read and curious about the text, you need to get pleasure from the text you are reading.

In 2016, Wilhelm and Smith conducted a study because they were curious about what types of pleasure teenagers get when they read books that are typically frowned upon by parents and teachers (i.e. romances, vampire stories, horror, dystopian fiction, and fantasy). They interviewed 8th graders about why they read, what the feel when they read and how it connects to their lives. Through these interviews, Wilhelm and Smith concluded that there are 4 kinds of pleasure a reader gets from pleasure reading: play, intellect, social, and work (p. 25).

Wilhelm and Smith (2016) believe that the pleasure you get from reading something you like is similar to the pleasure you get from playing (p. 27). Wilhelm and Smith assigned the phrase “pleasure of play” (p. 27) to this concept. The concept that Wilhelm and Smith call “the pleasure of play,” Jennifer and Ponniah (2015) call “aesthetic reading” (p. 2). These terms can be used interchangeably. Aesthetic reading is basically the feeling a reader gets when they find a book that they can’t put down; this feeling is what is considered the pleasure factor in pleasure reading. According to Wilhelm and Smith, feeling is a prerequisite to the other three pleasures: intellect, work and social. I absolutely agree with this because when I read, a book is not pleasurable to me unless I feel that I can’t put it down. If a student does not have this ‘pleasure of play’, I do not think it should be considered pleasure reading.

I love the concept of social pleasure, it is so relevant and very apparent, at least it is in my life. Wilhelm and Smith (2016) define social pleasure as connecting to others and identifying yourself through pleasure reading (p. 28). To me one form of social pleasure is when a reader either finishes a book or a chapter and instantly feels the need to talk to someone about it. I experience this with every pleasure book I read, but the most mind-blowing book I read that had this social effect is called We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This is the first example that comes to mind when I think of social pleasure, but there are many more. Another possible way of experiencing social pleasure is seeing someone holding a book that you are also reading or that you have read, and feeling compelled to go over to them and to talk to them about the book. This connection could spark a friendship.

Social pleasure could also influence someone to read a book. I started reading because I heard my friends talk constantly about The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I started to feel left out, so I picked up the book and this caused me to be the bookworm I am today. Jennifer and Ponniah (2015) theorize that if a non-reader socializes with a pleasure-reader about a book they have not read, it may prompt them to read that book to feel included (p. 3). This can cause a new reader to begin to like reading rather than experiencing more typical negative feelings towards reading. Negative feelings or hatred towards reading can be counteracted with a basic theory developed by Jennifer and Ponniah, the theory that pleasure reading can cure readicide (p. 1). Jennifer and Ponniah define readicide as a “systematic killing of the love for reading” ( p. 1). This means that through various methods, people, usually teachers, unknowingly kill the love of reading for their students. This may occur through requiring students to read academic texts. Academic texts make students feel too much anxiety since the students may not understand the texts on their own because the books are usually at a higher reading level. Jennifer and Ponniah believe that pleasure reading cures readicide because the “curiosity of the content presented in texts”, often influenced by a social experience, creates a “[sustained] interest and extends the time devoted for reading” (p. 2). So basically, if you read a text that is interesting to you, there is a higher chance you will continue to read for pleasure.

I think the most important pleasure, or benefit that a student can receive from pleasure reading is the pleasure of work. Wilhelm and Smith (2016), talk about a physical work and an inner work (p. 29). To me, the inner work of a reader is far more important than physical work. Physical work is when you read a text and use it to accomplish something (p. 29), but I think this rarely occurs, unless you are in a specific workplace or class that requires outside reading. On the other hand, inner work is when someone tries to change to become the best version of themselves (p. 29). I often experience inner work by putting myself in a character’s shoes. It is beneficial to see other people’s perspective as this perspective may influence the way a reader sees the world and views other people’s lives. Venning (2015) states that placing yourself in other’s shoes will increase a readers’ empathy because they may learn something about various hardships a person may go through. I would have never known what it was like to live with short term memory loss, or to walk around with a birthmark covering half of my face without reading the One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr or North of Beautiful by Justina Chen. Knowing that someone’s life is different than your own can create an empathetic person. This type of inner work is usually done unknowingly. But, you can also knowingly take part in inner work where you try to better yourself as a whole. A reader can also experience inner work by reading self-help books where they purposefully try to better themselves. This book genre has become very popular and is very beneficial to the reader in terms of inner work.

I think that most people start to read and continue the hobby because it is very calming. Venning (2015) states that pleasure reading reduces anxiety. The fact that pleasure reading reduces anxiety is important because everyone has stressors in their life like money, jobs, and school; pleasure reading can help take your mind off of these stressors. Pleasure reading is known to put forth a calming energy. It is almost like you are in your own little bubble when you read. This calmness that one experiences can reduce anxiety for the time that a person is pleasure reading. This is one of the reasons that I continued to pleasure read. When I read, I don’t think about any stressors in my life like grades, money or fitting in. When I read a good book, I solely think about the book’s characters and what is happening in their life rather than mine. The book may even be a stressful book-maybe it is a thriller or a character is going through a breakup-but what is calming and stress reducing about it is that you are not dwelling on a stressor in your own life.

According to Wilhelm and Smith’s (2016) four pleasures, only one pleasure affects a person’s intelligence, which is “intellectual pleasure” (p. 27). This shows how much more of an impact pleasure reading is on the student themselves than on their academic life. This is not to say that there are no academic benefits to pleasure reading, the social and personal benefits just outweigh the academic benefits. The academic benefits of pleasure reading are enhancing vocabulary, grammar, spelling, comprehension, exam scores and reading strategies.

Jennifer and Ponniah (2015), Research Evidence (2012) and Wilhelm and Smith (2016) all believe that comprehension skills (i.e. vocabulary, grammar, spelling etc.) are improved when a student pleasure reads. When a reader comes across a term in an academic text that is either the same or similar to a word they have read when pleasure reading, they have a higher chance of correctly defining and comprehending the word, which leads to a better comprehension of the text. This is because the reader will be familiar with the word and its meaning through pleasure reading (Jennifer and Ponniah, 2015, p. 4) which will in turn make the student comprehend the academic text better, as a whole. This comprehension does not stop at vocabulary, grammar and spelling; pleasure reading also helps with comprehension on academic exams (Research Evidence, 2012, p. 9).

According to Research Evidence (2012) pleasure readers are better exam takers than non-pleasure readers(p. 11),. Students who read information-based sources rather than pleasure books “tended to have lower attainment” (or comprehension); those who read for information (not pleasure) only once or twice a month score higher than those who read for information every day. Put another way, it is better for the reader to read pleasurable texts than academic texts when it comes to performing well on exams. This is because when students try to read academic texts without the guidance of a teacher, they will confuse themselves and may not retain the information as easily as a student who pleasure reads would without a teacher to guide them (Jennifer and Ponniah, 2015, pg. 4). And when it comes to applying what you have learned from either pleasure reading or academic reading, the pleasure reading will be much easier to apply since the reader had a much easier time understanding it and analyzing it. On the other hand, if you are asked to analyze an academic text, it will most likely be much harder.

Jennifer and Ponniah (2015) claim that the current testing strategies used in schools negatively affects pleasure reading and causes readicide in students (p. 2). This may be the result of being taught a “graded orientation” rather than a “learning orientation”. A grading orientation is when students read something and memorize it for a short amount of time to get a good grade and a learning orientation is when students read something and understand it to remember forever (p. 2). This graded orientation often comes from the exam taking strategies students are taught. Students are often taught to temporarily learn the topics rather than to comprehend them and to remember them. Pleasure reading helps students to comprehend texts, whether are for pleasure or academic purposes, so if a student pleasure reads they are able to test better than their non-reader peers. The students who do not pleasure read also shallow read rather than deep reading to pass a class. According to Jennifer and Ponniah deep reading is when a student analyzes a text and retains the information presented to them (p. 2). Shallow reading is deep reading’s counterpart; when students do not analyze texts nor retain the information. This often looks like skipping over hard-to-comprehend parts. Non-reader students who have not been taught or have not learned how to analyze and comprehend higher level texts would typically just skip over that section or reading. Although, if these students pleasure read, they would be better equipped to comprehend these harder sections and will succeed more than their non-reader peers.

The theory, presented by Jennifer and Ponniah (2015) that pleasure reading aids in the ability to comprehend academic texts, also results in improving a student’s mental health (p. 3). According to Venning (2015) pleasure reading helps to reduce anxiety. If a student is better able to understand and remember a text, they will have an easier time during tests, when writing papers, and even just when reciting something from the text. This ease will take away some of the anxiety associated with accomplishing these tasks. Anxiety levels can also become lower because a student will be more inclined to pick a book that is at their reading level, not higher. When a book is above a student’s reading level, the student will struggle to deep read and will create anxiety when trying to comprehend it (Jennifer and Ponniah, 2015, p. 3). So, it should be recommended to the student to read at their level when pleasure reading, and when the student takes on more daunting texts like the ones given in school, they will be better prepared and therefore less anxious when they are required to take a test, write a paper, or to perform a speech about these texts.

So, were our parents and teachers wrong to believe that pleasure reading makes you smarter? I don’t think so. Yes, you do technically get smarter. Pleasure reading makes you better equipped to excel in academia, but I don’t think we should focus on the getting smarter part of pleasure reading. From what I have learned and experienced, pleasure reading is much more important and influential for a person’s well-being than for a person’s intellect. Pleasure reading should be encouraged by parents and teachers, not just because it makes you smarter, but because it makes you a better person overall.

Jennifer, J., & Ponniah, R. (2015). Pleasure Reading Cures Readicide and Facilitates Academic Reading. Journal on English Language Teaching, 5(4), 1-5.

Venning, L. (2015). Why is Reading for Pleasure Important?. Retrieved from https://readingagency.org.uk/news/blog/why-is-reading-for-pleasure-important.html

Wilhelm, J. D., & Smith, M. W. (2016). The Power of Pleasure Reading: What We Can Learn From the Secret Reading Lives of Teens. English Journal, 105(6), 25-30.