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.
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 Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.