There was a time before televisions when families spent their evenings sitting by cozy firesides. They whittled tools and toys out of wood; they polished hunting rifles and mended clothing and knitted warm socks and scarves for winter and embroidered decorations on tea towels and handkerchiefs and baby clothes.
And often, they read.
Books were the movies and TV shows of past centuries. Many of Charles Dickens’ novels were published in serial form, a few chapters at a time. It would have been common for one member of the family to read the week’s installment out loud to the rest, and families had to wait a week to find out what would happen in the next “episode” of their favorite story.
Reading was not an individual pursuit; in fact, it most likely didn’t become common for people to read silently until sometime in the 1800s. Before that, reading was primarily a social activity in much the same way watching a favorite show is today.
But there’s a significant difference between watching a TV show and reading a book: reading is much, much better for your brain than watching television.
Watching television decreases activity in the areas of the brain that process language and is a risk factor in the development of Alzheimer’s. Because it is primarily a passive activity, television doesn’t promote the kind of complex thinking that teaches us to draw connections and think more deeply about the situations we encounter in our own lives.
Reading, on the other hand, fires up brain areas related to language, reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s, and delays cognitive decline in the elderly. Furthermore, according to researchers at the University of Sussex, reading reduces stress more effectively than listening to music, drinking tea, or taking a walk. And when mothers read with their preschool-aged children, they communicate more than when they watch TV together.
Reading engages our brains in ways television does not, and reading with others promotes social connections more effectively than TV can. So what should we do with this information?
My advice is simple: turn off the TV, and try reading instead.
Before I go any further, let me clear: I’m not telling you to never watch TV again. I enjoy watching a good show or movie just as much as the next person, and especially when watching with a friend or family member, I won’t deny that TV can be a fun shared experience.
What I am saying, though, is that the evidence is clear: reading is MUCH better for our brains than watching television, and based on that evidence, we would do well to reconsider how we spend our downtime. Here are 3 ways you can replace TV with reading—and maybe make some great family memories in the process.
1. Start a family read-aloud.
One of my best memories of my growing-up years is hearing my mom read out loud to us. We always had a book in progress—always. It started with bedtime stories, and once we started homeschooling when I was in fourth grade, Mom would read a book out loud while we cleaned up the kitchen after meals. She would read to us on road trips and sometimes before bed and sometimes, when the book was especially good, we would sit in the living room for an extra hour reading one more chapter—and then one more…and then another after that…
Whether your family consists of you and your children, your siblings, or your roommate, consider finding a book everyone will enjoy and reading it out loud. You can take turns reading (one chapter each, or maybe switch readers every evening)—or, if one member of your family is particularly talented at reading out loud, you can nominate them to take charge of the reading.
If you’re new to family read-alouds, try a classic like C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (get the whole Narnia series here), or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit for a story that all ages can enjoy.
2. Listen to an audiobook (instead of watching a show).
What if no one in your family is comfortable reading aloud—or what if you live alone, and reading out loud in your empty apartment just doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time?
I have good news for you: audiobooks are about to become your best friend.
Audiobooks aren’t the ideal format for every book. Books that make you think or books that are especially challenging are probably better read in print, so you can slow down and reread when you need to. You’re also more likely to miss some of the details when you’re listening, especially if you’re multitasking.
For many books, however—especially for narrative-driven books, like novels and memoirs—audiobooks are a fantastic choice. And as an added bonus, you have your hands free to fold laundry, learn a new handicraft, or do whatever mindless task you want to do while you listen.
Want to try an audiobook but not sure where to start? Check out this list of 15 audiobooks you can listen to in 6 hours or less.
3. Choose an audio dramatization of a book.
Bored with listening to someone read a book out loud? Struggling to convince reluctant family members to try listening to a book with you instead of watching TV in the evening? Try audio dramatizations: they’re a nice gateway to ease you away from TV and into the world of audiobooks.
Audio dramatizations usually have different actors for each character in a book and include sound effects to make the story come to life. Some are based on an actual book; others are radio plays, written especially for the audio format.
Either way, they’re an improvement over TV in that they engage your brain with language rather than with images while still being a little more lively than your average audiobook.
The BBC does excellent audio dramatizations of a lot of classic books. I’ve enjoyed listening to Agatha Christie murder mysteries, like these ones.
Does your family read aloud or listen to audiobooks? Share your thoughts and books recommendations in the comments!