I love reading. I love reading to escape. I love reading to learn. I love reading to experience. As an introverted, odd child, books were my havens. They provided me shelter and learning in a way that protected me (sometimes too much) from a world that didn’t understand constant questions and an eagerness to know.
As an adult, I go to books for exactly the same reasons, and the act of reading has helped me become a better person than I would have been if I didn’t read.*
Here are some of the ways that reading books has helped shape me into a better version of myself:
1. I have learned how to place myself in someone else’s story. When I read a book that has characters – fiction or nonfiction – I am always looking for the place I might fit into the story. Would I be the brother who withdraws to protect himself, or would I be the sister who stays close and tries to carry the family forward? Would I be the little girl hiding in the garden, or would I befriend the man up the street who everyone thinks is strange?
This habit means that I can often put myself in the stories of other people’s lives. I don’t always do that. I sometimes choose to cling to my own perspective and ignore the empathic impulse I have. But when I do follow my empathy, I find I’m better able to understand people’s choices and experiences, even if I have not lived them myself.
2. I know how to listen to a full story. Books are not blog posts. They are not Facebook updates or tweets. They are not even good dinner party conversation. Books – if they are well-written – are complex and rich and more multi-faceted than the most perfectly cut sapphire. In their pages, I find a full story with lots of twists and turns and a backstory that I might not know but of which I am still aware.
Thus, in real life, my natural response to the snippet of someone’s story is to want to know more. I don’t assume that the 5 sentences they post on Facebook reveal everything they feel about the matter, and I don’t jump to assume I know enough to give advice or critique. At least I don’t do those things on my good days.
3. I value other cultures, socio-economic experiences, races, and genders a great deal. While I still need to read much more diversely than I do, reading beyond my own experience has taught me about how rich and hard and beautiful our world is, even when the stories of others don’t mirror my own.
4. I can stay silent. Reading requires that I not talk. I simply cannot read and hear language – especially my own – at the same time. In this way, I have learned how much there is to gain from silence. I know that I might learn more if I simply do not speak. I have learned that sometimes my words have no place in a conversation.
So when I don’t understand another person’s experience, when their perspective on a topic or moment differs from mine, I try my best to put myself in the frame of mind I hold when I read and trust that if I don’t understand, I probably have not tried hard enough.
I am FAR from good at this. When someone says something on Twitter that irks me, my first instinct is to lash out, to get defensive, to speak from my perspective. But reading as taught me that this impulse is at best unhelpful and at worse harmful – both to the person to whom I shoot a barb and to me. Reading has taught me to listen, dwell, and then respond . . . only if necessary.
What about reading has made you a better person? I’d love to hear.
*Note – I am not implying in any way that people who do not read are lesser people, just that I would be if I did not read.