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Anyone who says they’re too busy to read is kidding themselves

Mark Zuckerberg reads a new book every two weeks. Bill Gates considers himself a great reader and Barack Obama packed six books when he went on his summer holiday last year. Former White House resident, Theodore Roosevelt, famously consumed one book a day when he was busy, and two or three when he had a free evening.

And yet, whenever the issue of reading comes up among my friends and family, it seems like everyone says they don’t have time to read books. Stay-at-home mums complain they are too busy running after their kids to sit down with a book. Those with high-powered jobs say they don’t have time to read anything but work reports or briefs.

An Amazon study last year found that two out of three Australians do not read as much as they would like and Roy Morgan research found that in 2014, just over 50 per cent of Australians had read a novel in the past three months. Which leaves almost 50 per cent who didn’t.

So, how can it be that people whose job it is to run a country or direct a multi-billion dollar company still have the leisure to lose themselves between the pages of a book? And I’m not referring to motivational or business books, many of the world’s leaders choose to read literature.

Perhaps the answer isn’t so cryptic, and very reason for these political and business figures’ success lies in some part in their commitment to reading, regardless of their busy and demanding lifestyles.

Much research has pointed to the correlation between reading books and academic and professional success. The UK Institute of Education studied the effect of reading for pleasure on cognitive development over time and found that the reading habits of secondary school students were more important in their academic success than having a parent with a degree.

An Oxford University study of more than 20,000 people revealed reading to be the only activity for 16-year-olds that correlates with a managerial or professional job later in life. In contrast, sports, socialising, cultural activities such as visiting museums or art performances were found to have little impact on future career.

Scientific studies have shown that reading may have benefits ranging from reducing stress, to helping keep your mind sharp in old age and improving your sleep.

But, most importantly, reading has been found to help us relate to other people, or develop an ability to interpret and respond to those different from us. Whether this is in dealing with colleagues, bosses, customers, clients or the media, it is a skill that is highly beneficial in almost any field, and clearly highly developed in many of the world’s most successful people.

It makes sense that people who read would better understand others, as reading a novel does nothing if not enable the reader to walk in different characters’ shoes. Is there any other way to delve so deeply into the ‘other’s’ experience, whether that be the other gender, nationality, personality or circumstance?

Not only does the reader benefit from this improved capacity for empathy, but also those who are led by or work alongside them.

And it is not only business relationships that benefit from this understanding. Any relationship can benefit from a greater ability to see from another’s point of view.

Celebrated French statesman Charles de Gaulle attributes not just his success, but his very being to reading.

“Don’t ask me who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.’’

By taking time out of extremely busy schedules to read books, perhaps some of the world’s most successful figures have, rather than jeopardising their career progression by taking time out from their demanding careers and lifestyles, have given themselves a career boost. They have expanded their minds, their experience, their understanding and their capacity to empathise.

They may recognise that time spent between the covers of a book is not dead time, or even simply a leisure activity, but is a kind of personal and professional development.

Maybe it is time we took a leaf out of their books and stopped treating reading as a waste of time, or just another hobby, a luxury we indulge in when everything else is done.  If people who hold positions of immense responsibility can take the time to read, perhaps we can, too. Yes, we are all busy and struggle to find time to squeeze anything else into our full schedules. But if we see reading as being a priority, enriching our social and professional interactions and building our knowledge of others and our world, we will make the time to read.

So, turn off the television a bit earlier tonight. Leave the dishes until tomorrow. Silence your iPhone. Resist the temptation to check your social media accounts. Do yourself and those around you a favour and pick up a book. And don’t tell me you’re too busy to read.

Some of my favourites’ favourites

  • Bill Gates, The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
  • Barack Obama, Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  • Hillary Clinton, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • James Franco, As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  • Kate Moss, The Beautiful and Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Kate Winslet, Therese Raqui, Emile Zola
  • Lena Dunham, Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

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