Tag Archives: why do we read

The Importance of Reading

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhen we read we get to step into the shoes of another human being. In that journey of a mile — or perhaps hundreds of miles if you consider the great epics — comes greater understanding, empathy, and the humility that comes from the realization that you don’t know everything (and you shouldn’t have to; besides no one likes a no-it-all). In short, we read to understand ourselves and our fellow man in the hope that we can become better human beings. But don’t take my word for it, here are some of the world’s greatest thinkers and writers on the importance of reading:

Socrates: Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writing so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.

Aldous Huxley: Every man who knows who to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant, and interesting.

T.S. Eliot: Someone once said, “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

Henry David Thoreau: A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint… What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.

William Ellery Channing: It is chiefly through books that we enjoy the intercourse with superior minds… In the best books, great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their soul into ours. God be thanked for books.

William Faulkner: [Man] is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Emily Dickinson:
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

Read related posts:
The Poem I Turn To
Great Literature Speaks

William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
What is Your Legacy?

The Power of Literature
Universal Human Values
The Poem I Turn To
Why Read Dickens?
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America
Why Reading is Critical to the Writer
Is Reading Essential for Success?
The Books that Most People Begin Reading but Don’t Finish

For further reading: The Delights of Reading by Otto Bettmann


How Stories Last

atkins-bookshelf-literatureIn a recent seminar, sponsored by The Long Now Foundation that fosters long-term thinking, British author Neil Gaiman spoke eloquently and passionately about the importance of stories and how they endure, inspire, and sustain us. Gaiman explained: “Stories teach us how the world is put together and the rules of living in the world, and they come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and want to help them propagate.”

One of the most profound lessons about the importance of stories came from his 97-year-old cousin, Helen Fagin, a Holocaust survivor. During the Nazi occupation, Fagin taught math, language, grammar, to young girls who lived in a Polish ghetto. Gaiman recounts: “A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger — books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class, a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them math, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar. One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. [Fagin] blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour [so she could] read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book. And each night, she’d stay up. And each day, she’d tell them the story.

Gaiman asked Fagin why she would risk death for a story. Fagin answered: “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto – they were in the American South; they were having adventures — they got away.” Gaiman adds: “I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And [Fagin] told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind.”

Great stories then, as this anecdote proves so powerfully, magically transport us to another world. Gaiman observes: “The magic of escapist fiction is that it can offer you escape from an otherwise intolerable situation, and it can furnish you with armor, knowledge, weapons, and other tools you can take back into your life to make it better.” And sometimes, great stories, like faith, are the only things that can provide a glimmer of hope in the darkest corners of the world.

Read related posts:
The Meaning of the Great Gatsby Ending
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America
Why Study Literature?

For further reading: http://blog.longnow.org
http://blog.longnow.org/02015/06/15/neil-gaiman-seminar-media/


Reading Literature: Building a Castle of Words

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsImagination is certainly essential to science, applied or pure. Without a constructive power in the mind to make models of experience, get hunches and follow them out, play freely around with hypotheses, and so forth, no scientist could get anywhere. But all imaginative effort in practical fields has to meet the test of practicability, otherwise it’s discarded. The imagination in literature has no such test to meet. You don’t relate it directly to life or reality: you relate works of literature… to each other. Whatever value there is in studying literature, cultural or practical, comes from the total body of our reading, the castle of words we’ve built, and keep adding new wings to all the time. As for us, we can’t even speak of think or comprehend even our own experience except within the limits of our own power over words, and those limits have been established for us by our great writers.

From The Educated Imagination and Other Writings on Critical Theory: 1933-1963 (2006) by literary critic Northrop Frye.

Read related posts: The Power of Literature
Great Literature Speaks
Why Read Dickens?
The Benefits of Reading


The Benefits of Reading

atkins-bookshelf-literature

In the film, Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins playing the brilliant professor and author, C. S. Lewis, observes: “We read to know that we are not alone.” Little does he know how right he is — and now there is solid research to back him up.

Two researchers, Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, social psychologists at the New School for Social Research (New York City) wanted to know how reading directly influenced people’s perceptions; specifically, how does reading literary fiction, popular fiction, or nonfiction change a person’s level of empathy? The researchers recruited subjects (customers of Amazon.com) and had them read short sections (2-3 minutes) from well-known fiction and nonfiction works. After the participants finished their reading assignments they took a number of tests that accurately measured their to read social or emotional cues.

The researchers published the results of their study in Science in a report entitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” “Theory of mind” is a psychological concept that describes a person’s ability to understand that others have different beliefs and aspirations and that these may differ from their own. The new research provides empirical evidence that reading passages of literary fiction, that focus on a subject’s thoughts and inner feelings, increases a reader’s theory of mind tasks, i.e., empathy, emotional intelligence, and social perception.

Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist at Cambridge University, praises the researchers for their findings: “It’s a really important result. That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing… and to demonstrate that [literary fiction] has different effects from the other forms of reading [ — popular fiction and nonfiction — ] is remarkable.

While popular fiction is more focused on plot and exterior reality, literary fiction is more introspective — focusing on characters and their inner thoughts and feelings. Kidd elaborates: “[The popular fiction] author is in control, and the reader has a more passive role. [In literary fiction novels] there is no single, overarching authorial voice. Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

Castano and Kidd’s study results, underscoring the value of the humanities, couldn’t come at a better time. In a report entitled “The Heart of the Matter (June, 2013),” the American Academy of Arts and Sciences states: “At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion, we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be – our sense of what makes America great.” The report argues that the humanities should be a foundational aspect of a college education; specifically the report notes “college and university curricula must also offer the broad-gauged, integrative courses on which liberal education can be grounded, and such foundations need to be offered by compelling teachers.”

And what could be more compelling than reading to understand and empathize with our fellow man? Perhaps we should add to C.S. Lewis’s observation, “And we read to become better human beings.” Class dismissed.

Read related posts: Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature

For further reading: sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377.abstract
well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/
insidehighered.com/news/2013/06/19/new-academy-arts-and-sciences-report-stresses-importance-humanities-and-social


The Power of Literature

Inside stories lies transformational power,
Power that moves the invisible us,
Power that stirs our emotions,
To experience the experiences of others;
Stories allow us to imagine and live momentarily the lives of others.
And thereafter set a different course and perspective for the life we seek to live.
   Emmanuel Reed Manirakiza (c.1993-2012) in a speech to the
African Leadership Academy held in South Africa in September of 2010.

This is an insightful and profound testimony about the power of literature, why literature endures, and why we read. But what makes these words so memorable and compelling is that they were not written by an academic, an accomplished author or playwright, but by a young man, a Rwandan refugee, who experienced first-hand the darkest side of humanity, seething with intolerance, hatred, and cruelty. Through an unlikely conjunction of events, perseverance and faith, Emmanuel managed to escape its evil clutches. As a young boy (6 years old) he witnessed the vicious slaughter of his extended family — his aunts, uncles, cousins; his father was stoned to death and he lost his mother and sister to cholera. For years, they lived as feral children, foraging for food in the Congo, the weeks and months punctuated by a seemingly endless cycle of fleeing and hiding until the war ended in 2001.

Fortunately for Emmanuel, an Anglican bishop took an interest in him and placed him at Sonrise School, founded for orphans of the genocide, and it was there that this frightened but tenacious boy (now age 9) blossomed as a student, a provider (earning money to support his sisters), as a community leader (helping others develop a trade, tutoring, mentoring), as a writer (writing for a newspaper and public performances of his poetry), and as an English teacher. Emmanuel’s scarred skin and the bullet fragments lodged in his calf were a constant reminder of the brutality that helped forge his character: “Perhaps because I was old enough to distinguish a boil scar from a bullet scar. It is also these haunting memories that remind me time and again that I have a responsibility to fight against evil and divisionism. Such ideology caused terror and brought tragedy that ruined my life and fellow Rwandan citizens’ life. It cannot be repeated.”

Despite the world he was born into, Emmanuel never considered himself a helpless victim. Quite the opposite, he was graced with a maturity and self-awareness to discover the one inescapable truth in life that separates achievement and failure, hope and despair, life and death: in the words of Jean Paul Sartre, “we are our choices.” Emmanuel lived by a motto: “tough times make tough minds”; however even a brave, determined, and resilient young boy had moments of doubt — but he persevered because he believed in himself and his choices. In his diary, during some of the darkest days of his life, he records his struggles with the turmoil that exists in his world and within his soul: “Emmanuel, do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of justifying why you can’t climb the ladder of success. You owe no one an explanation why you will not achieve your goals. Your success or failure in life largely depends on you and what you are doing with life today but not what life had done to you in the past. Though you’re to look for God and others for comfort and instructions, you alone are responsible for your choices and you hold the key to your future. Do not let the world define how far you can travel and how much you can achieve. The speed by which you run is set by the speedometer of your mind.” With the kind help of teachers and mentors, Emmanuel allowed the wisdom and insights of literature into his heart and into his life, a glimpse of the vast canvas of life and humanity not obscured by the shadows at its edges.

Tragically, Emmanuel life’s was cut short by a swimming accident; he drowned on July 15, 2012 in Kigali. He had just learned how to swim and enjoyed it immensely.

Knowing something about this remarkable young man, and rereading his words about literatures’s transformational power, one cannot help but feel humbled by the teachings of an extraordinary human being who severed the shackles of his past, to crawl through the pitch-black night of evil and hatred to reach daybreak, filled with the light of love and kindness. How extraordinary that he was able to look past man at his worst, transcend his suffering and sacrifice, and use the lens of literature to see man at his best; to renounce hatred and intolerance and have the courage to live and love with an open heart. Despite all the violence and brutality that he experienced, Emmanuel believed in the intrinsic goodness of man. And for all that was taken from him, he gave back so generously, so selflessly. Indeed, Emmanuel’s story is a powerful reminder that stories can heal and transform — and here’s the rub — if we let them.

The world will never know how much more Emmanuel could have contributed to the world; however this much is clear: his words (thanks to Andrew Powell’s blog) will continue to resonate, illuminate and inspire us to live our lives more authentically, more courageously, more responsibly, more generously. He challenges us to battle hatred and intolerance, and use our talents and skills to contribute to the world to help — and not hurt — one another. And it is important to share and reflect on this story; by doing so we honor him, his family, his teachers and mentors, and what he believed in. Like all great stories, Emmanuel’s story is fragile — it must be treasured, it must be remembered, and preserved so that it may speak to future generations. Emmanuel came to appreciate what any student of literature knows: that when we stop reading and sharing, when we stop reflecting and learning from these stories we will forget where we came from and who we really are; we sever the delicate thread that binds all of mankind.

One has to wonder: why was Emmanuel taken so early? Perhaps he was too pure, too innocent, too good for this world. His time, however short, was full of purpose and meaning; he touched so many lives so deeply, bringing illumination through his good nature, acts of kindness, and mature wisdom. Divine Providence must have looked upon this angelic child — who had suffered enough, sacrificed enough, and given enough — and knew that it was time for him to slip the surly bonds of earth to return to his eternal home, to be reunited with his family, leaving behind the struggle and the strife of human existence.

Related posts: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
Universal Human Values
The Poem I Turn To

For further reading: http://apatala.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/emmanuel-manirakiza-uphill-climb/
http://ihcounsel.wordpress.com/2012/09/29/climb-on-emmanuel/


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