The Power of Literacy

When someone tells me they don’t much like to read, or just blatantly, “I don’t read,” the thought what the heck do you do with your time comes to my mind and all but blurts itself out of my mouth. If you don’t read, what do you do? What is there to do in the world besides read? Obviously that is a selfish question, as everyone has different hobbies and interests. But almost immediately a second question manifests, and a much deeper question at that. Do you know what you’re missing out on? And further, Do you consider yourself closed-minded or open minded? And finally, Why not?

The act of reading is a strange thing indeed. It is a solitary act, and it is time-consuming, so I can see why many people would prefer not to do it. But most people who feel this way will occasionally pick up a book, be it an adventurous thriller or a cheesy, humorous romance, be they snowed in and curled up by the fireplace or on a nice vacation sunbathing on the beach, and they will read and enjoy it. This type of person reads for fun, maybe a novel or two a month, and they understand and perhaps look up to the literary-type who devours books one after the other, if only just because they seem to have more time to do so.

I’m okay with these people. Even if they don’t fully appreciate literature, they understand the enormity of the portion of our culture books inhabit. It’s the people who claim to have read one novel in their entire life, and who say reading is boring or pointless that simply get on my nerves. …That might be putting it a bit lightly.

Boredom has nothing to do with it. Boredom is not a feeling. It is a perspective. If you merely see reading as an inquisitive and adventurous activity rather than a time-consuming, mind-utilizing chore, then perhaps you will one day find it in you to crack open a book and begin to find yourself enjoying the experience. It’s the first step, finding reading fun, but it’s the simplest step, one which children learning to read are learning to take. But reading is much, much more than fun.

Those who do not read are blatantly ignoring the biggest aspect of what separates humans from animals, what makes us so-called “evolved.” No other animal uses written language to communicate. (If someone knows of another species that does, please let me know; I’d love to learn more about it!) This simple truth draws a distinctive line between primitive creature and human being. Communication is evidence of our intelligence.

The second enormous thing that makes human beings unique is perhaps the most important of them all: empathy.

Perhaps the most significant thing I have discovered in my experiences of reading various genres and hundreds of novels is that reading helps create empathy. Like traveling the world to absorb the knowledge of numerous cultures, reading a wide variety of literature can shape a person’s perspective of the world, of other people, and of themselves. Nonfiction obviously offers knowledge, but in quite a different sense; I would never say that reading nonfiction takes less thinking—if anything it takes more, in deciding what information is true, who you can trust, and how you can utilize this information in an effective and productive way—but fiction not only provokes imagination, but it also encourages the development of empathy in a much subtler way.

Novels offer a rare look through another individual’s eyes at the world. It can be the same world in which the reader lives or it can be a totally imagined fantasy realm, but it still holds true to the inhabitants of our world. A reader, when peering through the eyes of a character at the world, must force themselves to extend their suspension of disbelief, especially if the narrator or main character holds drastically differing views. For example, a highly conservative person may find it difficult to read a novel in which the first-person narrator is quite liberal. However, for the sake of enjoying the story, the reader, whether they realize they are doing it or not, will often set their own views aside for the duration of the book.

In the end, the reader as not only experienced life through the character’s perspective, but they have also absorbed, by proxy, the author’s perspective on the world as well. There are numerous layers to the wisdom that each and every book holds between its covers, and it’s not something hidden, something you must scour the text for or rip apart the literary techniques and the historical or biographical context of the author to find. All you have to do is read.

When humans first developed the skill of communication, its sole purpose was survival: finding food sources, protecting each other from the dangers of the environment, etc. Now, we have evolved further and use language to evoke emotions in readers and to portray new worlds which a writer has created out of thin air. If one simple sentence can provoke miserable tears or ecstatic laughter or a sense of profundity, it can certainly help the development of empathy in an individual.

Who knows; a character in a book may be a Greek-mythology-believing warrior or an 18th-century Zen Chinese widow or an extra-terrestrial from not just a different world but a different dimension, but goddammit, that epiphany they had at the climax of the novel moved you to tears, it made you think critically about the choices you make, and most of all, it made you feel deeply about another individual who leads a drastically different life than you do.

After closing the book and wiping the tear from your eye, you may feel you just wasted six hours of your precious time or you may look back on the fun adventure of the characters feeling as though you had a nice little romp with some interesting folks or you may forget about the whole thing a week later. But one day, you may meet someone, maybe an average-seeming person on a bus ride, and they may tell you “My husband recently passed away” or “I’ve been thinking about joining the military” or “Sometimes I look up at the stars and feel immensely alone,” and though—let’s be completely honest—you may not have the slightest clue what to say to the person, at least you will understand, you will feel what it is to experience that pain because you have experienced it once too, when you joined a character, trusted an author, and learned just a little bit more about the world in between the covers of that book you read that one time a few years ago that made you cry. 

Peace, Aimee