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“Come with me, and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination,” sings Gene Wilder as Willie Wonka in the 1971 movie titled Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on a children’s book published in 1964 by author Roald Dahl called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It features the adventures of young Charlie Bucket inside Willie Wonka’s fantastical chocolate factory.

Later, after being read by scores of kids worldwide, this book was banned as Dahl’s description of the tiny Oompa Loompas was deemed racist. Following this ban, a much shocked Dahl re-wrote the Oompa Loompas description in a revised edition.

Such are the stories books are made of.

Whether fiction, biographical or somewhere in-between, books take us straight into the world of pure imagination. Unlike movies, where our brains are fed with scenes based on the director’s vision, books use tiny printed letters to transport our minds to a new universe. We see, feel, and experience what the author has written on the pages. The words, in equal measure, exhilarate and sadden us. We are moved, inspired, and, sometimes, disgusted too. We comprehend new ways to respond to the world. We learn about far-away places and the lives of people there. We even receive guidance on how to live our lives.

I grew up with my nose buried in books, and my favourite reads were the adventure series by Enid Blyton. From my small hometown in South India, these books shipped me to England’s moors with their purple gorse bushes and to mysterious islands with dangerous cliffs that had puffins nesting on them.

I would accompany the Famous Five on many a nail-biting mission, and with them would dare Mr Goon, the cranky policeman in their town. I admired Georgina or George, a moniker she so preferred, because she was not scared to challenge the boys and, in many instances, proved she was braver than them. I went on picnics with the gang, ate treacle pudding and cucumber sandwiches, washing it all down with cool lemonade.

Years ago, we used to turn to books for company, but they are now facing serious competition from smartphones and other electronic devices. The reading habit is on the decline these days, with many parents being concerned about the massive amount of time kids spend on social media. With Covid-imposed learn-from-home scenarios, screen time has only increased for kids. We grown-ups too have stopped reading books and are spending endless hours on social media liking this or commenting on that.

Reading books take away from screen time, and this is a habit to be encouraged for many valuable reasons:

  • Research indicates that books can change our minds for the better: Researchers used MRI scans of the brain to show that reading strengthens complex neural networks in the brain. Reading also strengthens our empathy for others, making us more tolerant of different views and beliefs and understanding others’ emotions. This is a great way to ensure that we make the world a better place for everyone.
  • Parents’ home libraries promote higher education in children: If kids grow up with books around them and their parents read to them, studies show a good chance that the children would study better and go for higher education. Studies have even put a number to the books that kids should have around them at home as they grow up – 114 to be precise!
  • Reading reduces stress: A study found that just 30 minutes of reading lowers blood pressureheart rate, and emotional distress just as effectively as yoga does.
  • Reading promotes good sleep and can even alleviate depression: Reading a book before sleeping ensures a night of great sleep. Reading is also proven to ease feelings of loneliness and alienation, thereby preventing depression. Doctors also prescribe specific books to heal patients on the brink of depression.
  • Reading increases vocabulary and helps one become a better communicator: A recent survey by Cengage shows that 65 per cent of employers are looking to hire people with good soft skills, like the ability to communicate effectively. Reading books is the best way to increase our exposure to new words and learn their context.
  • Reading enhances writing skills: With a better vocabulary, writing skills improve without much effort. A wonderful side-effect of reading, one would agree.
  • Reading can stave off cognitive decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s:2013 study found that people who have engaged in mentally stimulating activities all their lives were less likely to develop dementia, which could lead to Alzheimer’s.

With audiobooks gaining in popularity, readers may ask the question – is reading a book better than listening to an audiobook? The good news is that audiobooks are as good as print/e-books, according to a 2016 study. The immediate retention and the retention after two weeks are exactly the same for both these.

Now for the final question – are print books better than e-books? Well, if you love the scent of printed books and enjoy flipping pages, then e-books may not work for you. But if you consider the damage to the environment, e-books may be the best option for our home, i.e., planet Earth. According to some estimates, newspaper and book-printing industries cut down 125 million trees per year and emit 44 million tons of CO2.

Also, e-books are often preferred by young readers who have just started reading. Devices like Kindle has so much in common with phones and other electronic devices that youngsters have grown up with, and therefore the adoption comes naturally. Commuting on the Metro in Washington DC, I used to observe many young professionals and students reading on their phones to pass the time on their long rides home, sometimes chuckling in quiet enjoyment of their books. Besides, it is easy to buy books online quickly.

Amazon offers a collection of free classics and other books online as part of their Kindle store. The Gutenberg Project has 60,000 free books including Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A post on e-books from the Business Insider offers many more options.

Audiobooks, e-books, or p-books (as in print books); no matter what the media is, they all hold the promise of an expanded mind, incredible journeys, and many new possibilities in higher education and career. As the wise Dr Suess once said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

We wish you many enjoyable book journeys and leave you with this list of 100 books that everyone should read.

-By Sandya Karnad Deviah