“We read to know we are not alone” ~ C.S. Lewis*
When I was five, I hated reading. I loved stories, but others had to read them to me — it was just too much work. It was so much easier to just make up my own stories (and act them out using my hands — my parents are still talking about this, for some reason).
That all changed with one book. My brother read the first Harry Potter to me (he was only eight at the time — retrospectively I’m really impressed by his patience), and then refused to read out the second. So, if I wanted to find out what happened next to Harry and his friends (who seemed so brave and cool, being a whole 11 years old) I would have to, horror of horrors, read the next one myself.
I like to tell my brother that he created a monster, but really he gave me my love of reading, which I think has defined me as a person more than anything else in my life, except perhaps for my family. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that I would have discovered the joy of literary endeavour anyway, but I don’t think as soon, or with such a passion.
“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” ~ John Green
I think the most important thing about books is that they can be an insight into the mind of the Other. An insight into a mind completely unlike your own unlocks thoughts, and the realisation that everyone thinks, just as you do. That everyone remembers and dreads and hopes and dreams. That the same thoughtless fury that provokes your own harsh words can be why others lash out — books taught me that the villain can be human, and that the hero can be flawed. They taught me that my own flaws must be recognised and overcome. And even better when you discover a like mind, a kindred spirit, and realise that you are not some bizarre abnormality for thinking the way you do.
“It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.” ~ John Green
I was not a neglected child, by any means, but we all have our hardships, and I found solace in the stories of others, feeling like Matilda as I escaped to Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Time City, the amazon and even rural Britain. Books made me think about the world, and its complexity.
The first time I truly began to think about my own morality, or my own possibly passive immorality, was when I was 12, and read a heart-breaking book called Is Anybody Listening by Larry O’Loughlin. Almost anyone in my class who read this book seemed to say, “It was good, yeah. Sad, though.” I cried at least once an hour for about two days. It made me think of horrible things happening in other places, it made me think about how privileged my own existence was, and it made me feel achingly guilty for the fact that I ever forget this, or ever ignore the suffering in the world.
I came to realise that, in fairness, I was only 12, and there’s a limit to what a 12 year old can do. A cause for current guilt is that I still don’t do a lot to help in various matters. But if ever I make any sort of difference or impact in this world, I think it will be because of that book, and others like it that I stumbled upon in later years.
Another advantage to reading: people often assume that I’m smarter than I actually am, and I attribute this directly to a rather good vocabulary. You really don’t need to be smart to have a good vocabulary, you just need to read a shit-load of books. But this can be a serious asset when writing essays or engaging in debates — if eloquent and verbose sentence construction is second nature to you, you will be able to more accurately convey your precise meaning and thoughts. So, on a purely technical level, reading helped me with my writing and those silly comprehensions they make you do throughout secondary school. Also, good knowledge of English can help with comprehensions in French, or Italian, or other Latin-based languages. They can have very similar roots.
So yeah, reading is good from that aspect. But I think the true value will always be emotional, historical and intellectual. Books taught me to think in the way I do. Books taught me why others might think in the way they do. They taught me about historical events — not with dates, but from psychological and sociological perspectives (Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Good book). Books were my first peek into philosophical thought.
The Discworld series (by Terry Pratchett) taught me folklore, sought out the absurdities in both foreign and familiar cultures, taught me the beauty of parody, and taught me that no matter how silly a character, or how flawed a person, they have the ability to inspire with their own quiet determination. Also, for comedic works, Pratchett’s books contain an astounding amount of philosophical insight — no, really! (A philosophy lecturer of mine even quotes Discworld from time to time).
The Lord of the Rings (by J.R.R. Tolkien) taught me that heroes can come from anywhere. That bravery, especially in the face of fear, is far more admirable than physical strength or worldly knowledge (especially Samwise Gamgee — my hero).
“Sam: It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
~ The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
A Little Princess (by Frances Hodgson Burnett) taught me the strength of the will, the strength of the imagination, the desperate need for it in the darkest days.
And Harry Potter … well, Harry Potter teaches me new things every time I read it. Honestly. It taught me to re-evaluate my first impressions. It taught me the importance of forgiveness, the value of friendship, the bravery of necessity, that people are people no matter where they’re from or what gifts they possess. It taught me that
“It is our choices … that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ~ Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling).
These lessons cannot be undone, and nor would I want them to be. Sometimes they were hard to learn (the tears — good god, the tears), but they’re important, and I will endeavour to always remember them.
This post is about books, but by no means do I wish to ignore other media of expression, I simply express that which had the most profound effect on me. Graphic novels can also be powerful (Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and Watchmen by Alan Moore are very much recommended). Films, while falling short of books in some areas, surpass them in others (Groundhog Day. Don’t even get me started. Everyone should see that film). Art, photography, plays and poems (Emily Dickinson’s where it’s at) all help to shape the world, and describe it in a way that our own minds cannot.
Tonight, I am going to a Harry Potter quiz. 14 years and infinite re-reads later, it’s still one of my favourites.
“Not all those who wander are lost.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien
*Attributed to C.S. Lewis in the film ‘Shadowlands’ — my lazy researching (by which I mean Googling) did not verify whether he actually said that.