July 18, 2023

Books: A Love Story

Lifestyle & Pop Culture

Oh sure, NOW I am socialized and able to speak directly to other human people in full sentences, but I was the weirdest, quietest, most awkward kid.

I got plastic glasses in second grade that reeked of great aunt energy; I had homemade bangs thanks to my mom who I guess hated me; and my little nerd brain finished assignments so quickly, my teachers gave me Teacher Errands and Special Tasks solidifying my place as everyone else’s least favorite classmate.

You want to make friends in third grade? Don’t design Mrs. Branch’s bulletin boards while everyone else finishes their United States map. 

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher Mrs. Moise called my mom: “I’m worried. Jennifer doesn’t play with other kids during recess. She just reads books under a tree.” (Can I live, Mrs. Moise?? The Secret Garden wasn’t going to read itself!) Having mastered zero social skills and unable to satisfy my outrageous craving for stories, I read like it was my sole responsibility to advance literacy for my generation.

Side note on Mrs. Moise: For Christmas, she bought a book for each specific student, and my girl classmates got the enviable Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High delights, and I got the very dense A Wrinkle in Time. I cried to my parents that she hated me then proceeded to read it in one day. 

When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a librarian. Dewey Decimal System, turn up! Books were my first love, my best friends, and my portal into wonder. 

A non-exhaustive list of my earliest favorite worlds: 

  • The Secret Garden
  • A Little Princess
  • A Wrinkle in Time (FINE, MRS. MOISE)
  • Every Nancy Drew book in existence
  • Sarah Plain and Tall
  • Dear Mr. Henshaw
  • The Call of the Wild
  • The Ramona books
  • Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
  • Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
  • Anne of Green Gables (all)
  • Hatchet
  • Stone Fox
  • The Westing Game
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond
  • The Outsiders
  • Julie of the Wolves
  • From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

And you better damn well believe I read every single book in The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High series. Ain’t nobody keeping me from Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, and Stacey.

How lucky we are as humans to be readers. I absolutely revere the written word. The utter magic of putting pen to blank paper and creating whole worlds out of sheer imagination is a wonder I’ll never get over. The way stories and characters reach us with precision, like the author knew us, like he or she uniquely understood our personal delights and demons, is unparalleled alchemy.

The way books bring us together, discussing plot points and story arcs like we were speaking of friends, enemies, or a favorite character gone sideways we might correct with enough robust conversation; what enchantment. 

Not to get too science-y, but reading is also a known accelerant for creativity, health, empathy, vocabulary, mental wellness, sleep quality, and even longevity. Reading makes us better. It is medicine for our minds and lives. In a world now trussed tenuously by screens and algorithms, books offer the old fashioned opportunity for actual nurture. Get a library card, and it is free sustenance. Reading will not return void. Ever. 

Among its many advantages, the increased capacity for empathy has me interested today. “Research has shown that people who read literary fiction — stories that explore the inner lives of characters — show a heightened ability to understand the feelings and beliefs of others. Researchers call this ability the “theory of mind,” a set of skills essential for building, navigating, and maintaining social relationships.” 

This makes sense to me. While spoiled and petulant, you better believe I was Team Colin Craven halfway through The Secret Garden, and I learned that difficult kids aren’t always as they seem. Sara Crewe taught me that kindness trumped circumstances and a rich interior life was its own comfort; long live A Little Princess. Annemarie Johansen left me speechless with her bravery in the WWII novel Number the Stars. (When I was a fourth-grade teacher, I read that book to my students every year, and I never once made it through without sobbing. One year, my most macho boy, Greg, had to stay inside during recess because he was so overcome by the ending. BLESS HIM.)

Books introduce us to other cultures, different types of families, experiences outside our purview. They stretch our understanding of trauma and give us insight into dysfunction. They help us see the good kernel inside the bad guy and the dark side of the good guy. Books give us a front row seat to conflict, repair, and resolution. They locate us squarely in 1961 interior Mexico, 1944 terrorized Poland, 1928 rural China, current-day inner-city Philadelphia. We get to imagine the smells and sounds, the cultural norms and relational structures. We literally walk a mile in others’ shoes, and it changes us for the better. 

It’s hard to formulate or codify; there isn’t an equation to apply or a template to overlay. In this case, the sum is simply greater than its parts: reading a bunch of fiction makes us more empathetic. It just does. How many books? I don’t know. How many years does it take? Man, just keep reading. We will experience the accrued effect without trying, like how crossword puzzles make you accidentally smarter. 

In a world gone plumb mad, reading fiction is a quiet antidote. It interrupts the freefall of dehumanizing our neighbors and slowly, like a river over a rock, makes us a little more gentle with each other. It is a tool in the hand of every parent intent on raising kinder kids.

Books tap into our most human parts and remind us that we mostly hope for the same things: love, belonging, forgiveness, meaning. It helps slow the avalanche of hasty judgment and holds the possibility of connection a bit longer. Reading does indeed make us better. 

And at the bare minimum, it offers a business plan to pre-adolescent girls interested in starting a babysitter’s club with elected officials like the one in Stoneybrook, Connecticut. 

Beat that.


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