So, what have you read lately….
…that’s longer than 140-280 characters?
While those of us on Medium will more than likely consume more than our fair share of books and articles, what about your office mates? Kids? Employees? Friends? Anyone in your circle? Who are the most interesting people you know?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but my favorite folks to spend time with are readers. They are also doers, but they build a foundation for their lives through reading. And that makes their ideas and opinions worth hearing. Including those we may not agree with- which is part of what makes us interesting. We don’t have to agree to be able to learn.
As a writer, it’s incumbent upon me to read. Voraciously, in fact. Writers read. They don’t just write. We have to in order to be inspired, to improve our craft, to hear others’ voices. We swim in the literary oceans of those greats from Whitman to Shakespeare to Keats to Shelley, to writers from India and Pakistan and New Zealand and Africa, if we are really going to expand our horizons.
Words are my craft, both as a writer and a professional speaker. So when I was badly injured last August and housebound for nearly four months, in some ways, it was a gift of the highest degree. I had to cancel three big international trips. On one hand, well crap. On the other, I had a huge stack of books, and ordered many more, and got to reading. HURRAH!
A Cornucopia of Books
I began with Beyond Words, by the incredibly eloquent and hugely moving Thoreau of our times, Dr. Carl Safina. Two of his other books, The View From Lazy Point and The Eye of the Albatross, have both elevated and saddened me about the state of our natural world and the animals we share it with- and what we desperately need to do about it if we want our children to enjoy the animals painted on their nursery walls.
I’ve blitzed through thrillers and nonfiction by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richter, whose terrific books Dead on Arrival and A Deadly Wandering are seriously informative tales about computer and cell phone addiction.
I learned that trees have brains in their roots and confirmed my suspicion that every single fish in a huge shoal is a unique individual- and that we have hardly scratched the surface in our understanding of animals and plants. I found out that an albatross sleeps while flying and one that has lived fifty years has flown some 3.7 million miles. These facts engage and delight and fascinate and make me hungry for more.
I read about how microbes are all around us, in us, on us and everything else, and have more to do with why we are alive and healthy than we could imagine in the wonderful book I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong.
A Never Ending Education
In all, last year I read nearly forty books and am in the middle of six more. I read in multiples, never worrying about picking up a story line. My dining room has stacks of books. Each “feeds” me differently, causing me to ponder current events, the state of our world, the quality of our language. Safina’s purity of prose forces me to find better words to say what I want to say. Childs reminds me to be more punchy with my sentences. I’ve been pushed and prodded and learned new words and had my boundaries expanded and made travel plans based on what I read. This year I am off to Indonesia and Alaska and Madagascar. Because of books.
There are even more books on my Kindle. When I have a piece of time, I read, rather than surf Facebook.
Successful People Read. A LOT.
The world’s most successful people read incessantly. From Oprah Winfrey to Elon Musk to Warren Buffet, they inhale books and newspapers (http://www.businessinsider.com/what-successful-people-read-2017-7). Some, up to ten hours every single day. This is one of the essential differentiators of successful people- they are voracious readers.
Yet according to TheLiteracySite.com, 33% of high school grads will never read another book in their lives. Same for 42% of college graduates. Some 57% of new books aren’t read to completion (which could be a statement about how well they’re written, too). Some 70% of Americans haven’t been inside a bookstore in the last five years. Even worse, 80% of American families haven’t bought or read a book last year.
But too many of us read Twitter, and call it news, or education, to our national detriment and decline.
The Benefits of Reading
In other words, people stop educating themselves other than what they might get online, which is frightening indeed (as we’ve seen play out these past two years) and they stop developing their minds in many other ways. Reading is more than just education. Taking the time to sit down with a book- a real one or a kindle- does a lot for your brain and body.
- You regain your ability to focus, which is an increasingly rare skill today. Reading helps you concentrate.
- You quiet your racing mind while also stimulating your thought processes with new ideas.
- It takes you somewhere new, and invariably that will reduce your stress.
- You gain knowledge, insight and education.
- Your basic vocabulary will automatically improve….
- ..as will your memory.
- Especially if you love thrillers and spy novels, reading will improve your problem solving skills.
- You’ll find a quiet place to be, once you’re absorbed in a book. The world whirls away.
- Your writing will improve. A lot.
- Depending on how you get your books (library, a friend, or buy them) some can be free, or low cost.
- You will be armed to learn how to question. The ability to interrogate, assess, and balance what you see and hear comes with expanding knowledge. Those who die in a ditch based on what “my daddy” taught me forty years ago possess the intellectual equivalent of a garden snail. Well, not quite that smart.
You May Find Your Calling
The great beauty of books is that you might also find your calling in one. In reading a book for a book club last October, I found, and subsequently interviewed, a woman climber who has inspired me to take some new risks in my work. Her story moved me deeply. That book came along at just the right time (Margo Talbot, All That Glitters). And just to make a point, REI did a survey last year during its Force of Nature campaign and found out that some 63% of women don’t have female role models for the outdoors. There’s a good reason for that. If the only place you look is social media, the great frontier breakers aren’t there. They’re in books, memoirs, biographies. You have to read about them. Libraries are full of female role models. You simply have to expand where you look, and make the commitment to read.
A Book Can Avert a Disaster
Books provide us not only a place to expand our minds but also to challenge them. Good books invite us to become more than what we think we may ever be. Stories- the best ones- uplift and inspire. You see yourself anew. What a gift, just from reading.
In the terrifying fortnight that hung over America during the Cuban Missile Crisis, then-President John F.Kennedy distributed copies of the bestseller The Guns of August. As one report noted: “He was reportedly “so impressed” with it that he “often quoted from it, and insisted his aides [and military officers] read it,” then had the Secretary of the Army distribute it to “every U.S. military base in the world.” https://opencommons.uconn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1517&context=srhonors_theses.
Leaders Need to Read, a LOT
Some of our leaders have barely passed the Dick and Jane level. Given the puerile name-calling that could easily lead to nuclear disaster, they haven’t read nearly enough. Mein Kampf doesn’t qualify as appropriate reading fodder for leading an American democracy. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage might be a wee bit more instructive, for starts. Being a student of past leaders’ costly mistakes is a great way to avert current disaster; however if you bull forward assuming you’re right without any research or understanding, you are guaranteed to fail spectacularly.
You Don’t Need to Be Leading a Nation to Read
The unfortunate example of an under-educated, uninformed White House need not set the example for a nation. That our Commander in Chief can’t read is deeply unfortunate. The former First Lady Barbara Bush understood the need for literacy (https://www.history.com/topics/first-ladies/barbara-bush) even though it didn’t exactly pay off handsomely for her son. This topic was a hallmark of her time in the White House, but it didn’t change our swift slide into a relative literary desert.
There is a national war on libraries( https://teleread.org/2018/02/13/donald-trump-nonreader-in-chief-again-wants-to-kill-off-imls-the-library-agency/) That access to free education- as well as the Internet- is a cornerstone of our democracy, and it’s essential to creating opportunities for all of us. Shutting down these avenues to adventure, education and the rest of the world is tantamount to national book burning.
You Have a Powerful Choice
We don’t have to emulate bad examples. Most importantly we don’t have to remain ignorant, uninformed, uneducated and single minded. Books invite growth. They bend ideas. They expand our worlds. Unlike the attitude I encountered in rural Australia- “My gran’ was a grazier (sheep farmer), my da’ was a grazier, I don’t need an education..” We don’t have to perpetuate poverty, ignorance and hate. At the time, most the most educated people in Australia were Asian immigrants. Immigrants who went to school, got degrees, built successful businesses, and ended up hiring the sons of these multi-generational graziers for low wages. Low wages because they were uneducated, and suited only for grunt work. These young men couldn’t be bothered to read, and instead cabbaged themselves piss-drunk every night at the local hotel pub. I know. I met hundreds of them. The crying shame was that back then, in the 1980s, an Australian had access to a free education right up to their PhD. Not any more.
The Gift of Guenberg
The Gutenberg Bible, produced in the mid 1400s, transformed the world when the first printing press was developed with moveable type. The access to the Bible by thousands was the beginning of modern book production. It gave the potential for learning to the masses and out of the hands of the few. In many ways, this set the stage for an educated public. People were hungry for what they’d never had before. It revolutionized the knowledge of the common man.
The Best Way to Be Uncommon
We are today awash in data, and we spent 10–14 hours a day on our devices. Not enough of us read, or read to completion, enough books to keep us informed, engaged, and educated. And therefore not only are we losing literacy, we are also losing our ability to think with a rich perspective. Not only can non-readers not get hired, that is almost a guarantee of poverty and misery( https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-literacy-america). We are jailed not only for the crimes we commit, but Americans increasingly live in financial, emotional, and intellectual jail due to our ignorance. Our inability to read, expand our worlds and question authority make us easy to manipulate. Even worse, one side of the aisle in our political sphere sees higher education as the enemy (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-do-so-many-republicans-hate-college/2017/12/28/db55f5f6-ec16-11e7-b698-91d4e35920a3_story.html?utm_term=.2da49068c04c)
If reading makes us informed voters, and an informed public is a more successful public, then why are reading and education so terrifying? Why are free libraries so threatening? Because, again, we learn how to question. A powerful Democracy stands in part on a well-educated, informed, engaged, sober and reasoned public. The less we know and understand, the easier it is to get us to move in large herds out of fear. Fear borne of ignorance.
I am not advocating reading just to support your own POV. I am advocating reading lots of things, including articles and books that are antithetical to your core beliefs. This forces us to consider: Am I willing to let go of being right, and instead, see both- or all-sides? How much more powerful we are when we seek to see from other’s viewpoints. Not only do we develop compassion and understanding, but we also gain insight into how others have reached their conclusions. That makes us useful, rather than battering rams for our narrow agenda. This is the heart of diplomacy, averting war, negotiating trade deals, and averting vicious arguments both online and face to face. Reading keeps us open, soft and curious about the world, and reminds us of the vastness of what we do not know, will never know.
Reading is a Radical Act
Reading puts us in the river of the world. Otherwise we only know our own back yard, and hardly anything about that. We assume the world is flat, that the sun revolves around the Earth, and that everything we know is right. That’s the damnation of ignorance.
The world is at your feet, and much of it is in books. Whether you read Stephen Hawking or Bill Bryson of Jodi Picoult, the idea is to keep the doors open.
That’s how the light gets in.