An open letter to my students: Read books, please.

Dear Students,

I am concerned about you.

We live in a time of unprecedented access to information and entertainment through our smartphones. You have been raised in a digital playground where endless high-quality entertainment is a click away, 24 hours a day. Despite the convenience, it is making you worse off. I don’t need to go into the full indictment of your phones, because you are already know that I am right—and why.

Yet, you are having trouble doing anything about it. That is part of my concern.

Growing up, my world was different. Our entertainment options were limited to a few television channels with nothing good on past midnight. Video games like Pong and Pac-Man were digital novelties, but they pale compared to the compelling RPGs, open world games, and first-person shooters of today. And don’t get me started on the pornography.

With many fewer options, I spent hours with my head in a book, journeying through the eerie landscapes of Stephen King’s imagination or exploring the boundless universes crafted by Robert Heinlein or learning of Earnest Hemingway’s real-world adventures. I learned that there was an infinite world filled with marvelous possibilities, exciting challenges, and interesting people.

I saw this tweet, and it made me sad—and more concerned.

These data are in line with a Pew Research study that revealed that 23% of American adults haven’t read a book in the past year.

The aim of this letter is to make the case that reading is important to success—and reading books is an essential aspect of reading.

The history of the book spans millennia, a reflection of human ingenuity. The Sumerians began using clay tablets around 3000 BCE for writing and the Egyptians used papyrus scrolls by 2400 BCE. The Romans’ development of the parchment and the codex in the 1st century CE made books portable. Throughout the Middle Ages, from the 5th to the 15th century, manuscripts were laboriously hand-copied by monks, making knowledge accessible today.

A pivotal moment occurred around 1440 with Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press, revolutionizing book production, making them more accessible and significantly accelerating the spread of knowledge during the Renaissance. The 19th century saw the advent of paperbacks, drastically reducing costs and making books more accessible to everyday people.

Mark Twain humorously noted, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” My argument is similarly straightforward: the world’s smartest, successful, and most influential people read books (they write them, too).

And so should you.

Books are more than just entertainment; they are tools for personal growth, windows to other worlds, and a means to understand the complexity and depth of the human experience.

Oprah Winfrey’s journey from poverty to becoming “Oprah” underscores the transformative potential of reading. She speaks of how books were her solace and inspiration throughout her life. “I am where I am today because I believed I could,” she says, attributing her success to the lessons and experiences gleaned from books. “For every person who has ever felt not good enough, not pretty enough, or unfairly judged by others, there is a book for you that will be your medicine,” she notes, emphasizing the therapeutic nature of books.

Becoming immersed in a story, especially, is a path to empathy and understanding consistent with Harper Lee’s insight from “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Reading a book also requires the reader pay close attention in order to synthesize and create their own mental models as they link ideas across chapters and volumes. This is higher-level thinking is unlikely to happen across snippets of ideas on TikTok.

As Joseph Addison once said, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” I prefer to say that reading is nutrition and writing is exercise. In any case, Books not only enrich our minds but also fortify our concentration, nurturing a mindfulness that is increasingly rare in a digital age.

Though e-books and audiobooks have their place, I want to make the case for a paper book as your weapon of choice. Reading a paper book avoids digital distractions. No need to have your phone on—nor even close by.

Of course, I am not asking you to abandon your phones, but I am asking you to turn the damn things off and discover the joy of getting lost in a story, to feel the weight of a book in your hands, and to give yourself the space to reflect without the glare of a screen. Books also have a wonderful smell—whether new or old.

I suggest adding a pen to the mix and mark passages, jot comments in the margins, or straight up take notes. Now you are bringing together two of my favorite things reading and writing.


Well, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. A good place to start is to start small reading anything—long or short—that you enjoy reading. Naval says, “Read what you love until you love to read.” In other words, don’t start with Moby Dick.

Try both fiction and nonfiction across different genres to get the full experience. Maybe you will like one more than the other. I prefer creative non-fiction, but cracking open the occasional book of poetry is delightful.

Make reading books a regular habit, even if it’s just 30 minutes a day. I like it especially at the end of the day, when your damn phone is least useful and interferes with sleep Reading before bed unplugs from anxious digital stimulation. My rule: no screens an hour before bed.

If you are excited by this possibility or just want to learn more. I had a conversation on my podcast about reading (a lot) more.

The well-being of your generation rests on your ability to break free of the games, status games, and sugary entertainment of the digital world. You know what happens if you don’t, so why not try something different?

I want you to reach your full potential, and I hope you join me on a journey rediscovering the superpower of books.


Peter McGraw