During the last three months of 2014, I was taking a class. With work and volunteer responsibilities, attending class, required reading and writing papers and presentations, I easily over-filled my schedule. It wasn’t the first time I’d taken up something really good only to have the requirements get on top of me, but this time I began to particularly miss one thing that was crowded out of my life. That was my time for pleasure reading.
I really felt the lack of it, too. Not just reading itself, because I was reading for class. Learning almost always requires some form of reading. Staying informed and keeping up-to-date does also, so I don’t actually go a day without reading things like blog posts or magazine articles. But when that is all the reading I get to do, it feels like eating a meal of all vegetables – nutritious to be sure – but I want something more.
I needed fiction reading. I needed to set aside my own life and get into a good novel and its world and its characters. Months before I’d read The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, a fantastic book and one of the best novels I’ve ever read. (I’ve found out since then that others who read it felt pretty much the same.) I was craving that experience again, and not just for relaxation. Novel reading isn’t just escapism, usually, although sometime it is just that, and most often there is an element of escapism in my reading.
No, there was more I needed from a novel, more that anyone gains from good reading. Somewhere, once, I read that “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body”, and I’ve thought of four ways that novel reading does this for me.
- It widens horizons by teaching us about areas of life that we don’t experience. Afghanistan appears bleak and desolate in the news, an oppressively austere and dreary place, yet there is a back story behind the pictures. The Kite Runner begins during the last years of Afghanistan’s monarchy, when the capital, Kabul, was a bustling, thriving city with a rich and interesting culture. As the story unfolded and as communist revolutions, civil war and the Taliban successfully dominated and oppressed Afghanistan, I could “experience” this upheaval as it shaped the lives of the characters I connected with.
- It challenges the narrowness of our perspective. Sometimes I need to be shaken up and to have my view of life challenged. During the time frame of The Kite Runner, I lived entirely in the Midwest, where life is never more turbulent than the worst snowstorm. Afghanistan, by contrast, was tumultuous and dangerous. There was no way to read about it and not wonder how my perspective and, particularly, my politics had to change. The limitations of my own experience were right in my face.
- Reading increases our self-awareness. If you can live vicariously through the eyes and experiences of another – which a good novel lets you do – then you can think, “What would I do in that situation, if I was part of that family or in that setting? How would these same events make me think and feel? Could I cope? What kind of person would I have to become to do better?”
- It promotes empathy and inclusion. Living through a character inevitably makes you start to look at others differently and with more patience and understanding, to not want to avoid and ostracize them when they are difficult or demanding. This is so easy to do, even natural. Novels give you practice looking at things from someone else’s side of the fence, and when you do, you’re more likely to step back and start to consider what’s going on with them and how you might have an effect on them.
To me, reading is a kind of mental traveling. It’s venturing to a part of the world I’ve never been to, or to a time in the past (or the future) that I’ll never be part of, where I can temporarily live a life that will never be mine. With books, I am unmoored from contemporary America, and from being a white, male, Midwesterner, and I get my chance to be a wanderer and a seeker beyond the limits of what my responsibilities and money would allow me.