Summer Reading Makes the World a Better Place

Summer Reading II by Catherine Nolin

Summer Reading II by Catherine Nolin

When I think back to my childhood summers, one of my favorite memories is the feeling of coming home from the library with a heavy armload of new books. Our weekly forays to the children’s room were a cherished ritual. There were (and still are) few things that filled my heart with such happy anticipation as a book not yet read.

Now that I’m all grown up, I love reading in any season, but there’s something about summertime that suits the literary pursuit particularly well. Even people who rarely read during the rest of the year are apt to pick up a “beach read” when they head to the shore. Perhaps it’s the way slipping between the covers of a book so perfectly complements our summertime proclivity for escape.

But there’s more to reading than just escape. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the stories I devoured during childhood were a significant part of my education on how to be a good human being. Looking back now at my book selections from those early years, it’s not difficult to identify the roots of my personal mythology. From the elementary grades through high school, I read almost exclusively fantasy and science fiction; and my virtual excursions into the imaginative and wondrous worlds of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin, C.S. Lewis, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Douglas Adams, and many others shaped my view of the world. The boundless diversity of the characters, ideas, beliefs, and themes in these books opened my mind and my heart, page by page.

“If minds are truly alive they will seek out books, for books are the human race recounting its memorable experiences, confronting its problems, searching for solutions, drawing the blueprints of the future.” Those words were penned by Harry Allen Overtreet, an American writer and lecturer best known for his book The Mature Mind, which contains such gems as, “All children, Diderot once observed, are essentially criminal. It is merely our good luck that their physical powers are still too limited to permit them to carry out their destructiveness.” Overstreet points out that maturity – the development of empathy, patience, respect, etc. – is the result of cultivating a particular mindset, not of chronological aging. Sadly, our society is plagued with immature grown-ups who never evolve beyond the self-centered perspective that, in adults, leads to sociopathic behavior.

Happily, there is hope. Study after study has revealed that reading fiction has a very real and positive influence on our ability to empathize with others. When we read fiction, we experience life from the perspective of the protagonist. We put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. What’s more, some studies indicate that reading fiction stimulates the same neurological regions that would be activated if we were going through the protagonist’s experience ourselves.

So, stories can expand our knowledge, insight, and capacity for caring. They can also, apparently, heal. According to a fascinating article by Ceridwen Dovey in The New Yorker, bibliotherapy, a term that dates back to the early 1900s, is the practice of reading for therapeutic effect – prescribing particular books as tonics to cure apathy, heartbreak, doubt, etc. According to a number of studies, even reading simply for pleasure has many benefits including deep relaxation, lower stress, higher self-esteem, better sleep.

Books, in short, make the world a better place – a more accepting, open-minded, and empathetic place. I recently read a blog post by a mom whose family lives in a tiny town of about 1,200 people in Nevada. The local school library hadn’t been able to purchase new books since the 90s, so she sent out an SOS asking people to donate “just one book.” In her plea she wrote, “We need racially diverse books. We need graphic novels. We need women’s studies. We need science … Everything that would make a difference in a young person’s life … Will you donate a book? … Something literary or fun—something that speaks to your truth, their truths. Something that teaches them something about the world. Makes them feel less alone?”

It is perhaps ironic that the solitary act of reading a book can make us feel less alone, but in these deeply troubled times, it may be one of our best hopes.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition – a long-form post on writing and the writing life – and/or introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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23 thoughts on “Summer Reading Makes the World a Better Place

  1. Pingback: Summer Reading Makes the World a Better Place — Live to Write – Write to Live | subtlydifferent

  2. I agree with every word. My first realization that I “loved” books was receiving my small package of books via the Scholastic Book Club when I was in the sixth grade. My teacher was a monster. To this day I believe those books provided the space my twelve year old spirit needed to grow.

    • Wasn’t that such an exciting event?!? I mostly borrowed from the library, but I have vivid and fond memories of many book purchases from my youth. There was something very special about selecting that “perfect” read and making it yours. 🙂

      PS – Sorry your teacher was a monster!!

  3. Well-thought out ideas, going deeper into what reading books is all about. There is so much to be said about the sheer pleasure and relaxation of it, but I do agree that one learns and grows and experiences so many more lives through books. I’ve noticed that very often, shallow empathy people tend to be people who … don’t read.

    • You’re right. Reading teaches us so much more than the facts of what we read. I think there’s something inherent in the act of reading that helps our brains process the world differently. I’d actually love to read some of the studies in more depth … maybe I’ll hunt those down. 😉

      Thanks for being here!

  4. So t rue, so wondrous are books and reading! A lifeline, an inspiration, a thought-grabber and -changer, a welcome distraction and entertainment–so much more are they…Yes, as a counselor I often “prescribed” songs (lyrics) poems or stories–or their own writings to be begun and shared with others. Thanks for the good post this morning!

    • Hello, Cynthia! 🙂

      Love your descriptions. Perfect and so true! There is much solace and insight to be gained from reading … and from, perhaps, meditating on the words and how and why they resonate with us in different ways at different times in our lives. What treasures!

      Thanks & glad you enjoyed the post.

    • Always carrying a book in your purse is NOT weird. It’s wonderful! 🙂

      When she was younger (she’d 95 now), my grandmother used to come with me and my daughter to the library once each week. Her eyesight was bad, so I’d introduced her to audio books, and I would help her pick out books on tape and CD each week. She’s always been an avid reader, and it was such a delight to have three generations of a family (my mom would have made it four, but she didn’t join us) visiting the library together.

      Thanks for coming by!

  5. When we lived in Toronto, we were just around the corner from one of the coolest libraries anywhere. Their children’s section practically screamed fun, and as I got older, it was that library, and my mother’s encouragement to read anything and everything, that made me fall in love with books. I remember the librarian giving me surprised glances as they’d check out biographies, new age, historical, fantasy, YA and nature books for me.I still read the same way now, as an adult way up in the woods of Northern Ontario. I’m proud to say all those books I read back then very much influenced how and what I write today.

    • It’s almost magical the way libraries influence so many readers and writers. They offer a kind of safe haven from the world that also manages to open the world to us at the same time. I still have a feeling of “coming home” each time I visit our library. It has changed a lot over the years, but its spirit remains intact.

      Thanks for sharing your story. 🙂

    • Thank you so much. Very glad you enjoyed the post, and ALWAYS happy to provide more excuses to read! 😉

  6. Such a good post Jamie! Reading was one of my favorite activities as a child and it definitely helped shape me. Every summer I would read as many books as I could. I read the classics,biographies, fantasies and and historical fiction. I need to find time to read more fiction now!

  7. Hullo Jamie ❤️ being a book loving child like you, I also loved the thrill of an unread book and uninterrupted reading time. I rarely have any of the latter, but I will! I will! The books we read as children do have a profound effect on our psyche. As a child I loved books with strong female characters like Jo March and Anne of Green Gables and Heidi and The Secret Garden. I am not sure if I liked classics because they were available to me, or because i appreciate classic literature, but I know that I still love those elements in the books I read today.

    • I also loved Little Women and Anne of Green Gables and Heidi and The Secret Garden, and I have my mom to thank for all of those wonderful stories. They were only a handful of the books she read aloud to me and my sister as we ate our dinner and she waited for my dad to get home from work so they could have their evening meal. I am forever grateful that she took the time to do this, instilling in me a love of both books and – as you pointed out – strong female characters. Those stories (and many others like them that I later chose and read on my own – Julie of the Wolves and the Island of the Blue Dolphins and the books of Pern by Anne McCaffrey) helped me believe that anything is possible.

      xo

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