Why I Read
I am hoping to post on this blog a little more often, and one of my ideas is to write a monthly post about the books I’ve been reading.
Last year I joined Goodreads online, and I’ve enjoyed that opportunity to share book recommendations with friends and write and read reviews. But I want to blog about my reading, too, because it is an important part of my life.
Why do I read? I was thinking through the reasons, and honestly, all the reasons I read are the same reasons that I teach Literature to my students, and that I want to inspire a love of reading in my children. It would be disingenuous for me to teach them to prioritize reading if I didn’t prioritize it in own my life.
The reasons I read are the same reasons I want a six-year-old or thirteen-year-old to read. The reasons don’t change as you grow older; they may just look a little different.
I have had bouts of insomnia in my life, the worst of which was a few years ago when Elanor was a baby.
I had always been a high achiever, driven to perform and to gain approval, and the concept of self-care or even of rest was not really on my radar for a long time. As a young mom, there was so much I wanted to do for God, for my family, and for others. It was as if I felt the world couldn’t keep turning without my effort to make it happen, and I disguised this pride under the label of sacrificial love and how I was pouring myself out for everyone in my life.
Until God gave me the wake-up call (literally) of insomnia. For me, insomnia is a clear cause-effect reaction in my life. If I have a stressful day when I’m pushing myself and running on adrenaline, I’m more likely to have insomnia that night. And though I can handle one bad night, after several in a row, I’m no good to anyone. I began to realize that I couldn’t just keep pushing myself and raising my stress levels—I was dragging myself around exhausted all day, and then lying awake heart pounding in the night.
So in the last few years I’ve learned about self-care in its many forms and made relaxation more of a priority in my life. I still have insomnia on occasion. One day last week I had a dentist appointment in the morning, through gargantuan effort still managed to get a full home school morning in with the kids, then crunched hard through early afternoon quiet time to get a blog post written, went to Costco in the late afternoon, made dinner, and then attended a church class that night. Rush—rush—rush—must get it all done—success! Or is it success? After sleeping a few hours, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall back asleep, as if my body was saying, “See? Don’t do that!”
Anyway, this blog post is supposed to be about reading, isn’t it? One of my favorite ways to relax is with a book—sometime in the middle of the day, when I am nursing Brennan or when there is a quiet moment, and also at the end of the day, with a glass of red wine and pillows and blankets and a quiet few minutes after the kids are asleep. For a moment I am not running around. I’m not accomplishing anything.
And since I’m an introvert, I am recharging in the quiet. My soul is restoring. My heart rate and breathing are slowing (unless it’s a gripping page of a novel). I’m pulling back from my busy life so that when I lean back in, I’m ready.
I like to think of my reading as a way of pressing “continue” on my education, even in these busy years of being a mom to young children. The books I read continually mold my perspective.
Good reading feeds good thinking, which would be enough in itself, but good thinking in turn feeds good writing for those of us who like to express ourselves that way. (Good thinking feeds good speaking, too, whether it’s conversations with friends or an actual speaking career someone might have.) It’s like inhaling and exhaling—reading in, thinking to process, writing/speaking out. Trying to do it without the reading is like exhaling only.
This applies to nonfiction and fiction both. True stories written with beautiful style are soul-feeding. They build imagination. They might teach me all kinds of important facts and themes, and most importantly of all, they teach me empathy.
If there is one quality that is lacking in our culture, I would say it is empathy—the ability to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes and thereby to sympathize with them and to respond to them appropriately, instead of misunderstanding or attacking them.
I see the violence in our culture, whether it’s video games or movies or school shootings. I see the combative tone of our online exchanges, the prevalence of abuse of all kinds, and the destructive games our politics have become. I see the us vs. them lines drawn in nearly every debate. And it doesn’t seem at all like the way of Jesus.
Empathy doesn’t contradict truth—it springs from truth, because it grows from understanding. Empathy is a quality I desperately want my children to have. But how do I teach it to them? It’s not a subject like math or science or music that we can complete, test, and check off our list. It’s certainly not guaranteed by growing up in a religious home or by attending church (some people would argue the opposite, and not without good reason, unfortunately). But without empathy, everything else can become meaningless. How can we cultivate this in our children and in our own lives?
I believe one of the most important ways to develop empathy is to read, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, stories from the perspective of other people. It brings me for a moment out of my own perspective and opinions and life experience, and gives me a chance to be someone else for a moment. What is it like growing up in Nazi Germany (All the Light We Cannot See)? Or growing up in Afghanistan before the Taliban (Kite Runner)? What is it like to have cancer or Alzheimer’s (Still Alice)? To be a widow (Sarah Agnes Prine)? Through reading I can imagine and better empathize with those who have had experiences I have not.
Maybe one of the best kinds of novels for developing empathy are those written from two or three perspectives. It’s kind of a new thing, to have a first person voice, but a viewpoint that changes with each chapter. I find it so enlightening.
I remember reading one novel about three mothers of kindergarten students in contemporary Australia (I think it was Big Little Lies). The book was written alternately from the viewpoint of all three. I don’t remember the exact details of one minor scene, but it smacked me right between the eyes, as if the book had said, “Gotcha!” I was reading from the perspective of one mother, driving her child to school on the first day, grabbing a pair of heels from the closet, wondering if they looked ridiculous, wearing them anyway, and carrying her insecurities and anxieties along with her as if she drove to school. Then I shifted to another character’s viewpoint, seeing this mother from the outside, and thinking, “What absurd heels.”
Which is exactly what I would have thought, since I struggle with style and I don’t do heels and I can mask my envy of effortlessly fashionable people under judgment.
But in this case I couldn’t, because I had just been in the perspective of that heel-wearing mom and I knew how she was really feeling. So I recognized that assessment of her appearance as what it was—superficial. And I wondered how many superficial judgments I make of other people, when underneath we are all just really human and struggling in our own ways.
So reading has grown me in empathy, in less judgment and more understanding, less fear and more confidence. So many novels are brain candy (or worse), and I try to evaluate what I read through this focus of developing empathy. The main quality I look for in stories is, are they true—not meaning necessarily nonfiction, but true to life, reality, human experience. This means a few things:
- The characters are real, well-rounded, and nuanced.
- The motives and decisions of these characters drive the plot (instead of the plot feeling contrived or coincidental).
- The theme naturally grows from the plot (instead of seeming like a slapped-on moral that doesn’t belong. This is why I get annoyed sometimes by fiction with a “Christian” label that tries to engineer a conversion or add a religious theme superfluous to the story).
- Any sex, violence, or language belongs as necessary to the story (instead of being gratuitous and added in at every opportunity to make the story more titillating because maybe it couldn’t stand on its own otherwise).
- A delightful writing style and well-described setting is definitely a plus!
If the story fits these criteria, chances are I will enjoy it and learn from it no matter what the genre.
So those are my reasons for reading, and why if you check in on me around 9:00 at night when my kids are finally all asleep (please don’t, by the way) you will probably find me not trying to get a few more things done, but instead relaxing with a book. Trying to learn, grow, rest, and enjoy a good story. So hopefully I’ll blog more about what I’m reading and that will be one more reason to keep reading!