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Everything Your New Year’s Resolutions Will Do to Your Brain and Body: Reading More

If you can resist the tractor beam of your phone, here’s what it’s like when you actually commit to reading more books

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” So said Mark Twain, and it seems the more things change, the more things stay the same, since “reading more” consistently makes the top ten list of popular New Year’s resolutions. But in the second decade of the 21st century, it’s not just slogging through Paradise Lost that’s a challenge: It’s legitimately hard for people to ignore the temptations of their phone for long enough to read any book (or even just the back of a shampoo label while sitting on the toilet).

Last year, we talked to some experts about how to find the time to read more, but now we’re looking at what that’s actually like. How does reading more change a person? We asked Julie Goler, a book-club facilitator in L.A., and Leigh Altshuler, communications director at New York City’s legendary Strand Book Store, what to expect.

What It Does to You After a Week

Aside from the thrill of taking on a new project and getting swept up in a book, perhaps the most significant thing you’ll notice in the first few days is being untethered from your phone for deliberate periods. Maybe you find that makes you a happier person, or maybe it feels like trying to resist heroin — be prepared either way.

Physically, “There’s definitely something to be said for reading a book before bed instead of staring at your phone, the TV or computer, just because screen time isn’t the best on your eyes,” says Altshuler.

While you might physically still be slumped, dough-like, on your couch, mentally, reading takes you far away. That’s the amazing power of books: Not only do they drop you to a different world, “It transports me beyond the news cycle, which is something that I really need right now,” says Goler. The new routine takes you out of your normal life a bit, and the story itself does too. Whether your life is amazing right now or a full-on shit show, anyone can appreciate the thrill and the freedom of getting swept away from the comfort of their own sofa.

What It Does to You After a Month

We all have short attention spans nowadays, and books go a long way toward helping you regain the ability to focus for longer than a goldfish. That’s because, according to Altshuler, it’s a different type of stimulation. “So many times I’ve started reading and I realize I’ve read a hundred pages and it’s nighttime,” she says. “Most people reconnect with themselves that way.”

If you’ve joined a book club, meanwhile, you’ll get an instant community — one where you all have the same, ready-made topic to discuss. “When reading happens in a group setting, we’re dying to talk about the books that have really moved us,” Goler says. “In my book group, they look forward to that night away every month. It’s one night away from their spouse and kids, or one night where they’re going to have glass of wine, good food and discus a book. Talking about a book you’ve read makes you feel less lonely in the world.”

Obviously the physical act of reading alone won’t get you in shape, but reading is a good supplement for certain kinds of exercise. “I used to read when I was at the gym, on the treadmill or StairMaster,” says Goler. “The two things together were healthy habits.” Other people get their kicks by exercising to the sounds of an audiobook, so even though a book feels like it requires your undivided attention, they might actually help you get fitter, too.

What It Does to You After Six Months

If you’ve dedicated yourself to reading, by now you might find yourself hooked on books themselves. “We do a lot of events here [at Strand Book Store] where we see people come here for the first time because a book changed their life, and now that they’re here, they’re open to a whole slew of books they can read,” says Altshuler.

The thing is, though, there are only so many hours in the day, and while Goler says you can tackle a novel in a month by watching 30 fewer minutes of TV a night, that can mean missing out on the water-cooler talk of our era: Whatever critically acclaimed, prestige TV show people are binging on at the moment. Whether that’s much of a sacrifice is up to you. Books also, of course, move at a different pace than other media — you won’t reach a resolution in two hours like you do with a movie, so it goes without saying that you have to dedicate yourself to digesting the story of a book.

Still, you’ll also realize that being an adult means not having to finish a book if you’re not feeling it. “If I don’t like something after about 60 pages, I give up,” Goler admits. “And that’s okay. Life is too short to read things you don’t love.”

What It Does to You After a Year

Dedicating yourself to reading for 12 months — whether you’re reading at leisure, as part of a book club or as part of some ambitious goal (Strand offers a “reading resolutions” checklist every year) — means you’ll likely come across an ever-widening variety of books. Even if you’re mostly into nonfiction, self-improvement or genres like mystery, sci-fi or fantasy, you’ll probably get exposed to books out of your lane that will broaden your taste. And if you ever revisit a book, you’ll find you get different things out of it. “If you read a book that you read in college or when you were younger or at a different point in your life, you may pick up on different things or different lessons or understand things in a different way,” enthuses Altshuler.

The transportational aspect of books is, in a way, the magical part about them that never dies. “Through reading a book, I can find out what it was like surviving the holocaust, being an activist or growing up on the South Side of Chicago,” says Goler. “Not only do I get to learn about people I don’t have regular contact with, I also get an opportunity to see what, say, good parenting looks like. In those ways, reading teaches you to be more empathic, more curious and more interested in the experiences of others, even if it may never be your experience.”

You’ve got to admit, that’s slightly more ennobling than spending nights reading your friends’ Facebook rants, playing Fortnite or scrolling through your ex’s Instagram feed. In a world that increasingly teaches us to judge a book by its cover, perhaps it’s time to turn the page.