“Once you get a real job, you won’t have time for that anymore.”
“Don’t you have anything useful to do?”
“Why would you spend time thinking about things that aren’t real?”
I’ve heard all of these statements–and more–when I mention something about the books I’m reading. People view reading–especially reading fiction–as something you do for fun, something you (apparently) grow out of once you have a job and a “real life.”
For a while, I wondered, “Are they right? Is reading a complete waste of my time?”
Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Here are three reasons why reading fiction has been worth my time–and why it’s worth yours.
1. Reading helps me empathize.
For they say what happened, but not what it was like…
–Beth Underdown, The Witchfinder’s Sister
History was my favorite subject in school…until I got to high school.
In elementary and middle school, I was homeschooled using a curriculum called Sonlight. Everything we learned about history was backed up by novels that made history come alive by telling us what it would have been like for a real person living in that place and time. History was exciting! Learning about other times and places was so much fun!
And then, I got to high school.
The history book my correspondence school used was, without exaggeration, the driest book I had ever read in my life. It was full of names and dates and facts but completely lacked the human element I had grown to love about history.
I didn’t only want to know what happened: I wanted to feel what it would have been like to live through it.
That’s what reading gives us: the opportunity to see things from someone else’s point of view. Researchers have found that reading literary fiction improves empathy in both adults and children.
When you practice getting inside a character’s head in a book, it makes it easier to understand the real people you come in contact with.
2. Reading changes me.
For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are…
–John Milton, Areopagitica
Books are made up of words, and words are how we share ideas. When you read, you’re having a conversation with a writer; you’re hearing his or her ideas.
This seems obvious when I’m reading nonfiction. Someone has an idea about how to educate children better, so she writes a book. Someone else has ideas about how understanding personality can make your life better, so she writes a book.
Someone else has an idea about the huge effect our little choices can have, so she writes a novel that makes her ideas come to life.
Since ancient times, people have told stories to make a point. In the Bible, Jesus told parables to teach spiritual concepts to His followers. Old moral tales, like Aesop’s fables, illustrated virtues to listeners.
Today, novels often wrap crucial ideas in suspenseful stories and believable characters. Because I feel invested in a character’s life, I learn along with them. And like the character, I am changed.
Sometimes, I’m not even aware books are shaping in subtle, almost imperceptible ways. It’s like how we don’t notice babies are growing up until one day they’re walking and talking and we’re asking ourselves, “When did that happen?!”
When babies grow up, we get preschoolers who have brilliantly wack ideas and long, random monologues. When I grow through the books I read, I get clearer vision, keener understanding, and a world overflowing with possibilities.
3. Reading changes the world.
Literature, well or ill conducted, is the great engine by which…all civilized states must ultimately be supported or overthrown.
–Thomas James Mathias
If books change me, they can also change others. And if enough people in a society are changed, the society shifts, for better or for worse.
Some books change the world directly. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, set in and around a meat-packing industry around 1900, revolted Americans so much that legislation regulating food safety was passed within a year.
Other books help us understand the changes taking place around us. The conflict in Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things starts when an African-American nurse is ordered not to touch the infant of a white supremacist couple. The novel explores the tension between Americans’ right to believe what they want and their right to not be discriminated against, and after reading this book, I understand racial tensions in America so much better.
Books, poems, plays, films–every type of literature I can think of has the potential to change society, and everything I read can help me understand things a little better than I did before.
Reading can change the world. And that’s the only excuse I need.
How has reading changed you? What kind of books do you like to read?