A book can take you anywhere—a different place, time, planet, or reality. A book can transform you into someone else, dropping you into other people’s lives so that you see the world through their eyes, understand what makes them tick, and feel their hurts and their triumphs.
In fact, studies have shown that the neurological activity of readers mirrors the neurological activity of the characters about which they are reading. In addition, reading novels is widely believed to increase empathy, primarily by letting us share someone else’s experience.
We need to encourage this kind of armchair adventure more than ever these days.
This is one reason I was glad to see Maya Angelou’s debut novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, on my daughter’s freshman year summer reading list. I have quoted Angelou many times, but I knew next to nothing about her life until I happened to catch the episode “And Still I Rise” on the PBS series, American Masters. I had no idea what this woman went through or the strength and grace she embodied throughout her unspeakably tragic life until then.
I will be reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings this summer along with my daughter, and I have also been making intentional choices about other books on my never-ending and always growing TBR (to be read) list.
For instance, I recently read the debut novel of another woman of color, Angie Thomas. Her breakaway young adult hit, The Hate U Give, was inspired by a real-life shooting in which an unarmed, 22-year-old African American man was shot and killed by a white transit police officer. I listened to this story as an audio book, and it was the first time in a while that I found myself making all kinds of excuses to put down whatever else I was doing and get back to the story.
I was fortunate to be able to later participate in a book group discussion with Action Together North Shore, a local activist group of which I am a member. We had so many more people show up to discuss the book than we expected. The conversation was generously led by a black woman who is a professor of African American studies at Salem State University, but the rest of our group was white. A lot of learning took place.
Since then, I have read a very different story by another woman of color, Nigerian-American writer, Tomi Adeyemi. Children of Blood and Bone is a fantasy novel that tells the story of two races—one with magic, one without—who are pitted in a generations-long battle for power. The racial metaphor is clear, but the vehicle for the message could not be more different from Thomas’ super realistic storytelling in The Hate U Give.
Another book I picked up at our local library is a wildly dark novel by another writer who hails from Nigeria. Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer whose narrative in Freshwater often feels more like poetry than a linear story. Her themes are difficult and frightening, and her tale is interwoven with the mythology of gods that are so different from the Judeo-Christian one most of us are familiar with; but it’s these challenging aspects of the work that make it so fascinating and so valuable.
On the other end of the spectrum is Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime. This insightful, touching, and funny look into his life growing up in South Africa during apartheid as the child of a mixed-race couple was eye opening for me. I recommend this one as an audio book, read by the author.
My most recent read was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It’s an epic story that covers three hundred years in the lives of two Ghana-born half sisters and several generations of their kin. I won’t lie—it was a challenging read in terms of the material, but it was so worth it. I learned a lot. Gyasi succeeds in drawing her reader in so that they not only begin to understand the stories of her characters, they feel them. That’s the power of story.
Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, 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. For more from me, check out the archives for the Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.