New Research Reveals the Power of a Large Home Library (Even If You Don't Read Every Book)

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The bigger the childhood library, the better adults perform in literacy, math, and accessing and processing information -- useful for any entrepreneur.

Reading books can obviously make you a better, smarter small-business owner. But reading does other wonderful things as well. 

Books can reduce stress; reading for just six minutes can reduce your stress levels by up to 68 percent. Books can slow cognitive aging; compared with nonreaders (people who read less than one book a year), readers experience a 32 percent lower rate of mental decline in their later years. Books can even change your brain, at least over the short term: For up to five days after, reading can heighten connectivity in areas of the brain responsible for language and sensation.

Smarter, less stressed, better brain functioning: What small-business owner can't benefit from that trifecta?

And then there's this: A 2018 study of over 160,000 adults in 31 countries found that the more books that were present in participants' childhood homes, the more proficient they now were as adults in three important areas: literacy, math, and using technology to both communicate and gather and analyze information. (If you're wondering, 80 books resulted in "average" levels, with proficiency increasingly improving up to around 350 books, after which performance leveled off.)

The advantage for aspiring entrepreneurs -- or for any career -- is clear. Communication skills are paramount: for leadership, for pitching, for inspiring employees and partners, for sharing your vision and mission. Math skills also matter; if you can't understand your business's numbers, soon you won't have a business.

And as for gathering and analyzing information: How can you react to new competitors, new technologies, and new market conditions without the ability to not only understand data but then turn it into actionable intelligence?

According to the researchers:

Book-oriented socialization, indicated by home library size, equips youth with lifelong tastes, skills and knowledge. Growing up with home libraries boosts adult skills in [adult literacy, adult numeracy, and adult technological problem solving] beyond the benefits accrued from parental education or own educational or occupational attainment.

Which makes sense: Kids who grow up in a home where reading is implicitly valued -- and surely, at least in some cases, explicitly modeled -- are more likely to be avid readers. 

Oddly enough, though, advanced education doesn't necessarily offset the "lots of books in the home" advantage. 

Adults who grew up with relatively few -- if any -- books in their homes and later earned a college degree had literacy levels approximately equal to adults who grew up in homes with large libraries but only attended school for nine years. As the researchers write, a "bookish adolescence makes up for a good deal of educational advantage" in terms of literacy.

Granted, simply filling a room with books won't ensure your kids, or you, will be smarter. Correlation isn't causation.

The fact you have a large library may indicate you value lifelong education, both formal and informal -- both of which are important to entrepreneurial success. It could also mean you're more likely to encourage, nurture, and support the intellectual growth and development of your children. (Or that having the financial resources to amass a large library could indicate you have the financial resources to better provide educational opportunities for your children.)

But there is this: As Inc. colleague Jessica Stillman writes, surrounding yourself with more books than you could ever read says good things about your mind. Those books serve as a constant reminder of all the things you don't know -- which helps keep you intellectually hungry and perpetually curious. 

And possibly will keep you a little more humble, since research shows the quicker you are to admit you don't know something, the faster you can then learn it. As Jeff Bezos says, a key sign of intelligence is the willingness to change your mind, something that only happens if you're willing to admit that your current thinking may not be the best thinking.

All of which means that if nothing else, seeing all those books you haven't read will remind you of how much you don't know.


Humility, learning, and the willingness to change your mind when new data presents itself: That's another trifecta every entrepreneur can benefit from.

This article appeared in Inc. Magazine on August 13, 2020

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