Literature As A Lost Art

reading

I have hundreds of wonderful memories revolving around my family or connected to my family in some way. I was blessed with a safe and happy childhood, a luxury that many are not afforded. Honestly, it’s difficult to choose a specific memory that I could call my favorite, simply because there are so many.

If I was forced, however, to pick the most influential and perfectly wonderful memory, my immediate response would be my parents reading to me every single night. These memories of many nights are indistinct from one another in the best way: the same spirit of soft edges and a gentle voice reading a story of talking animals, storybook characters that come to life, hidden Jews, or traveling to fantastical worlds available only in our wildest dreams.

Bedtime was always my favorite part of the day for a number of reasons. Obviously, the stories themselves were a huge draw, but aside from that, it was uninterrupted time with my parents, usually my mom, and what little girl doesn’t adore spending uninterrupted time with her mother? This was sacred time in my family: no matter how busy or tired either party was, all of that was set aside for these quiet moments in bed, just before sleep.

I’m sure by this point you see the loveliness of these memories, but what about the influence? Well, I came by my obsession with reading, as they say. I am always reading a book; often, I’m reading more than one. However, this habit was not formed overnight.

Like most kids, I wasn’t particularly interested in the books at my reading level throughout elementary school. According to my mom, I didn’t really start seriously reading on my own until third or fourth grade. It was frustrating to me to read such boring stories that were far below my level of comprehension.

Who would have guessed that I would graduate college with a degree in English and Spanish? I don’t think any of my teachers in high school would have guessed correctly, to be perfectly honest.

I was and still am the girl that packs too many books for vacation and always has at least one book within reach. I get excited about sharing, recommending, and discovering books. My favorite places smell like books. Really, I’m a bit nuts about books.

That nightly ritual has shaped my life in unimaginable ways. And, yes, in more profound ways than the fact that I own too many books. I have longed for travel as long as I can remember, mostly because of the books I’ve read over the years. Books drove me to hike the Inca Trail, which allowed me to view Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate while the actual sun crested the Andes Mountains that surrounded us. Books sent me to Peru, which introduced me to some truly amazing experiences. Books taught me to long to see Amsterdam, specifically the Anne Frank House, which I did in college, along with France and Belgium. Because of books, my list of places to see is so long, I don’t even know every destination on it because I refuse to write it down. And those are just a couple of the experiences I have gained because of reading. That’s not even touching on the knowledge and insight I have gained because of reading.

You may or may not find it surprising that the moment I reveal my college major, I often receive a very specific reaction: “You were an English major? Sorry, but I don’t like to read….” Okay…do you expect me to freak out or something? Maybe the words “uncultured swine” or “illiterate” will come out or something?

Honestly, I’m not sure what these people expect. I understand that not everyone had my experience with reading growing up. Reading is a struggle for a lot of people and if the material isn’t engaging, why bother? Naturally, if you are disinterested in reading as a child–pending some dramatic shift–you are not going to be that interested as an adult. This is a growing trend in the wake of instant entertainment: TiVo, DVR, Netflix, Hulu, and all of the other entertainment services available. Why read the book when I can watch the movie? This attitude is becoming highly prevalent in today’s society.

Reading for pleasure is swiftly becoming a lost art for many reasons: lack of interest because stories are painfully dull, parents don’t teach their children the joy of reading, teachers focus too much on testing and how many words a child can read (sometimes through no fault of their own). There is this prevalence of an attitude of instant gratification–reading a book is an actual commitment that takes actual time to see a return. Those are just a few of the reasons for the loss of reading as an art form.

The most strikingly painful part of it all is that people who don’t read cannot understand the utter joy and satisfaction that comes from working through a complicated or heart-rending book. Nor can they understand the spark that works its way into your being and dares you to learn more, read more, see some of the places you read about, dare to imagine something greater and more interesting than yourself. Frankly, much of what I have learned about people and the world has come through reading.

There’s this quote I see quite frequently by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Reading allows one to explore other countries and worlds, meet many kinds of people and experience their lives; readers travel through history and learn to sword-fight, speak with dragons, learn new languages, and see sights that others can barely imagine.

In these many adventures, fairy tales, and run-of-the-mill stories lie a fascinating study of the human condition: what makes us human and how are we alike or different from one another? A reader knows that he or she can relate to most people because he or she can relate to an elf, a dragon, a stranger, a foreigner; essentially, he knows that people are people, no matter where they come from or what their culture is.

This sort of education is one of personal investment, diligent study, and passionate curiosity. In my experience, readers are the most interesting, empathetic, and dynamic personalities because they have already lived many lives, they have traveled far and wide, and they have met all manners of people. This sort of education produces impactful, creative, and productive citizens.

Still not convinced?

It’s hard not to have heard of Malala Yousefzai at this point. Besides being the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace prize in history, she has written a book, been threatened and shot by the Taliban, and there is a documentary coming out about her before year’s end. If you didn’t know, she has experienced all of these things simply because she was a girl who wanted an education, and once she got that education, she knew she had to advocate for other young women that deserve an education–or rather anyone that wants an education, because it’s not just girls who get slighted in that department. And the cherry on top? She’s from rural Afghanistan.

I already know the power of the written word, so does Malala, and apparently, so does the Taliban. They were so threatened by the idea of women receiving an education that they shot her to stop her family’s advocacy for education, an experience she lived to tell about.

We live in a country that takes education for granted in many ways, but it’s important to understand that education does not come cheap for most people. There are people in the world that would do anything to receive a basic education, that desperately want to know more about the world they live in. Many of us here in the U.S. take that for granted.

So, let me end by saying this: it doesn’t make me angry when people tell me they don’t like to read, it makes me sad. You do not know what you are missing out on, mostly because you see such a small slice of the world, and it is a glorious and fascinating world that has much to teach. You make me think of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast: “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking….” If you live in your own bubble of a world for too long, without outside influences, you will begin to grow stagnant and will no longer bring new and creative ideas to the table.
So, pick up a book. If not for yourself, then for the child that can’t afford a uniform to go to school or the little girl who isn’t allowed to go to school because of her gender. They would love to be in your shoes, to pick up a book and read about everything they can think of and more. Think of them and of the blessing that you are taking for granted.