Why It Helps To Read Good Books
People often say that experience is the best teacher. They say it’s so much more important in the long run than pure academic “head” knowledge. When you have experience, you just know intuitively what's going on and what to do.
When I've played in a string ensemble group long enough, I don’t need my ensemble-mates to tell me when I'm being too loud; I can hear it myself, because I've learned to listen. Or when you sit down to play Mario Kart, a wealth of muscle memory comes to aid you in a tough spot. Unless you’re like me, who has maybe only played about 3 days of it in my whole life, and you end up looking supremely silly and ridiculous—banging into rocks, flying off rainbow bridges, crossing the finish line the wrong way, dying constantly.
A few years ago, I started work at a health insurance broker’s office. I had never worked in an administrative setting before, so everything was new and strange and confusing and overwhelming—even more so since we were dealing with health insurance. The phone would ring and I would flinch, because I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I was out of my element. What did “effective date” really mean? Why does it matter what somebody’s zip code is? What do all the acronyms like “HDHP” and “MAPD” mean, anyway? But after days and weeks of experiencing the rhythms of the office, after more training, asking questions and watching my co-workers on the phone untangling knots and speaking with clients, I slowly started to understand and put the pieces together. Concepts took shape, the next course of action became clearer. Soon I could take calls and answer a few questions, too. And several months later, my family started asking me questions about health insurance! Experience changed me from a hesitant, confused twenty-something scared to pick up a phone to a confident voice on the other end of a call or an email.
We’ve all seen those scared, wide-eyed teens behind the cash register on their first day, taking 10 times longer than these things normally should, fumbling for words and unsure of what to do next. But time and hard work could soon turn that young person into a manager with 20 years of experience, running the whole place with ease.
In all of these scenarios, experience makes the difference.
Now people don’t often think or talk about what it means to gain "experience" reading good books, but it's a real, valuable form of growth.
Many would say that reading stories, literature, fiction is simply an academic exercise—that it's all just stuffing your head full of facts and images and scenarios that you’ll never actually use. Or as Plato would say, none of it is "real." Or even practical in a purely informative sense. So beyond giving a few hours of amusement on a leisurely afternoon on vacation, what's the point of reading stories anyway? And why should we encourage children and young people to do more of it?
After many, many hours of experience and training to read, I can safely tell you that when I pick up a work of literature, my brain knows exactly what to do. The thought wheels start turning, emotion gears click and snap, the brain and heart and soul machine starts rumbling.
When I read a good book, particularly a good story, the world of mind comes alive, and all sorts of things that were once mere lifeless, academic or abstract nonsense become suddenly material, tangible, enormously important.
I might read about early colonial America in a textbook, learning about the charters England granted early colonists and the way these colonists came to cherish their freedoms, willing even to fight for them if necessary. At this point, a kid will start to snooze.
But if you hand them The Witch of Blackbird Pond, before you know it they’ll be telling you all about strange Puritan practices and rules, about their fierce loyalty to their land and country, about the charters and conflicts over appointed governors and officials. They’ll know all of this because they absorbed it willingly—through enjoying the story of the island-raised, flamboyant and colorful Kit, trying to find her place among her gray-clothed, quiet Puritan cousins; they’ll find it in the stern eyes of Kit’s Uncle Matthew, or in the confident, jaunty swagger of the captain’s son, Nat, or in the gentle grace and blueberry cake of an old Quaker recluse, Hannah Tupper, falsely accused of being a witch. Because they come to care for these characters, they begin to care for and understand the wider world these characters inhabit. The story opens their eyes.
In this way, reading is a particularly unique experience. When we're fully engaged, a story has the power to touch and animate every particle of us—especially our mind and feelings, the wheels of communication, thought, emotions, and impressions that drive and motivate these bodies we call human beings. When we read, we have to slow down, process, have patience, make connections, wonder, imagine, become aware. We have to think. A story allows us to pick up on all the nuances and quirks and insights of extremely thoughtful and talented people, people who’ve spent an untold number of hours honing their craft. Reading is a window that reveals the world—but it's a world where anything is possible, as long as an author can get you to buy it.
As I’ve tutored high school students on their writing over the years, I’ve noticed that the distance between readers and non-readers is staggeringly vast. Of course there is nothing that can replace the efforts of hard work, and yes, naturally smart and talented kids can sometimes breeze by—but that is very rare. What I see over and over again is that kids who read extensively have a much easier time learning how to write. To communicate their thoughts and ideas. Kids who’ve formed a habit of reading pick up on things that their peers don't have the muscles, the practice, the experience to notice. They also have a better sense for when writing is good and when it isn’t. Strong readers of good stories and fiction, even if they don’t at first always understand why good writing or skillful communicating works, at least know what it looks like. And that’s the first step in being able to get there themselves. It’s very hard to sing well when you don’t even know what good singing sounds like.
Therapists often say accepting we even have an issue is the most important factor in achieving change or transformation. If you don't recognize there's a problem, how can you work on it? How can you improve?
Once you have the ability to understand, then you have a much easier time asking why questions, and communicating the why to others once you've recognized it for yourself. If lack of communication (or the dysfunction of it) is one of the main reasons why couples divorce, I think the same could be said of many of the wider conflicts in our world. We don't even know how to understand deeper things, to see the other side—to listen courageously, to ask questions, to let our brain muscles tackle a problem and emerge from the struggle wiser, stronger and more at peace than we were before.
Careful reading gives us practice doing all of these things.
When my sister and I hit fourth grade, my mom’s primary educational philosophy was comprised of handing us a new book to read every few days—depending on how long we took to finish it. The funny thing was, she never had to force us to finish any of these stories, usually some historical fiction written in the 50s, 60s or 70s about the time period we were studying in school. As we read, we began to follow the flow of history through the eyes of a boy apprenticed to a goldsmith in Ancient Egypt, a young slave girl forced to wrestle with the heritage of her mixed birth as both Greek and Roman; a young man who joins William Wallace to defy the might of England; a woman struggling under oppressive conditions in a New England cotton mill; a young boy doing his best to feed and support his single mother and sisters in New York during the Great Depression; or a schoolgirl in China wrestling with the fallout of reporting her parents to the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, I can still tell you the basic plots of most of those books I read over fifteen years ago. Several of them I picked up again to read a second or third time.
These tales captured my heart, forced me to pause and consider the condition of those who were different from me—and sometimes just like me. How did they respond? Is there any hope to be found when tragedy strikes?
Even fantastical works can serve this purpose as well. Percy Jackson is at his best when he realizes he’s not the hero of the Great Prophecy at all. And is there anything more inspiring than the courage of a peace-loving, reluctant hero-hobbit facing the might of the terrible Nazgul or the fires of Mount Doom? Or The Boy Who Lived standing up to Voldemort time and time again? We can learn with Taran Wanderer that sometimes we don’t have to come from any special family or background to make a great difference in the lives of others, and maybe even lead them. Meg Murray learns to embrace her weakness so that she can save her brother from the horrible, mind-bending It.
Not only does reading give us experience knowing what it means to think and communicate, stories can actually provide us with a kind of life experience itself. Books can actually help us become wise, because we’re experiencing life, character and personality on a smaller scale through these stories. If they're written well and honestly and wisely, they'll tell us not just about our world and human nature, but give us insight into the mind and feelings of an author. Reading opens avenues in our hearts and minds we didn't know were there, and that maybe didn’t even exist before. It prompts us to seek the answers to questions we would have never even imagined asking before we cracked open that book’s pages.
Aristotle called applied knowledge wisdom. Or in other words—a kind of experience. He definitely thought it was impossible to have wisdom without experience or knowledge. (Though with Aristotle it's important that you know not only what the right thing to do is, but also why you do it.) When we have experience plus knowledge (both of which reading stories gives us, which is why reading good literature is really important, and helpful), we can then begin to approach wisdom. We have all the right tools at our disposal. It’s impossible to make informed judgements, to be wise, without knowledge and experience.
An admirer of Aristotle, scholar John Henry Newman called such an approach to wisdom or the growth of the mind, "enlargement." He said it can take place in many different ways—lively discussion with others, wandering through nature, exploring the world, asking questions and letting your curiosity guide you through every area of life. But he says (and I've also found) that reading is one of the most helpful and primary ways to foster such enlargement of the mind. And to get a broader sense for the nuance and complexity in the world at multiple levels and dimensions, I would add, reading good stories. Such reading demands work, but in the enjoyment of the story, we're not thinking about the effort or energy it requires. And as we read, every part of us is strengthened, toned, shaped and influenced.
It's why certain books (and often books in general) have been banned by every tyrannical nation or regime in history. When you control what people consume, you control their minds. But books and stories—all kinds of them!—set our minds free, allowing us to start the process of achieving our greatest potential.
This process of growth and enlargement can begin anytime, but the sooner it begins the better—and the more effective it is. We all know that children are sponges. They suck up good and bad, silly and trite and wonderful and awesome alike—and indiscriminately. As parents, guardians, authority figures and influencers of young people, we have the opportunity to guide this inverse firehose towards something really beautiful and powerful. Understanding. Patience. An open mind. Compassion. Flexibility. Hope. Intuition. Thoughtfulness. Strength. Courage. Love.
Good books embody all of these things, bringing them to life and to goodness for young readers. Is there any child not enthralled by a good story? I haven't ever found one who wasn't.
But good books are just good stories. And aside from the basic elements of interesting plots and character they provide, the process of reading does all of the things we’ve discussed so far, and so much more.
At the end of the day, reading good stories gives kids (and adults, too!) the opportunity to develop window-eyes and wise hearts. They become practiced at seeing, perceiving, embracing complexity and nuance and light that is never very far away from darkness, and darkness that is never very far away from light. It helps them come alive, to develop "bright eyes."
And it's also just a lot of fun. Open a good book and be transported. Encourage your kids to read, and you will give them so many countless hours of joy and excitement and adventure. Once their imagination has been ignited, get ready. Not even the sky is the limit.