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The Need to Read

28 November 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

We all ask each other a lot of questions. But we should all ask one question a lot more often: “What are you reading?”

It’s a simple question but a powerful one, and it can change lives.

Here’s one example: I met, at a bookstore, a woman who told me that she had fallen sadly out of touch with her beloved grandson. She lived in Florida. He and his parents lived elsewhere. She would call him and ask him about school or about his day. He would respond in one-word answers: Fine. Nothing. Nope.

And then one day, she asked him what he was reading. He had just started “The Hunger Games,” a series of dystopian young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins.The grandmother decided to read the first volume so that she could talk about it with her grandson the next time they chatted on the phone. She didn’t know what to expect, but she found herself hooked from the first pages, in which Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the annual battle-to-the-death among a select group of teens.

The book helped this grandmother cut through the superficialities of phone chat and engage her grandson on the most important questions that humans face about survival and destruction and loyalty and betrayal and good and evil, and about politics as well. Now her grandson couldn’t wait to talk to her when she called—to tell her where he was, to find out where she was and to speculate about what would happen next.

Other than belonging to the same family, they had never had much in common. Now they did. The conduit was reading.

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

. . . .

Connectivity is one of the great blessings of the internet era, and it makes extraordinary things possible. But constant connectivity can be a curse, encouraging the lesser angels of our nature. None of the nine Muses of classical times bore the names Impatience or Distraction.

. . . .

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page.

The technology of a book is genius: The order of the words is fixed, whether on the page or on the screen, but the speed at which you read them is entirely up to you. Sure, this allows you to skip ahead and jump around. But it also allows you to slow down, savor and ponder.

At the trial in which he would be sentenced to death, Socrates (as quoted by Plato) said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone. It is a solitary activity that connects you to others.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire) and thanks to Julia for the tip.

Books in General

10 Comments to “The Need to Read”

  1. It’s a sweet story about a grandmother and her grandson, but the book connection works less well when you read voraciously. Depending on how long the story is, my son takes only a day or two to finish reading a novel. I’m the same way. Ditto my mother. Coordinating reading lists for a weekly phone call…well. Just sayin’.

    • Except I don’t think you need to read the book at the same time. When I get together with my 3 sisters, we talk books. Sometimes they are the same books (we have about four books in common that we all love) so there’s alway a way to tie in what I’m currently reading with a book I know they’ve read and enjoyed.

      I guess I’m just saying that just talking about books can branch out a conversation in many directions.

      • Agree. There’s also the variant of giving your niece a book you’ve read, and then talking to her about it when she finishes. That’s what my aunt did. I miss those days!

  2. I like this piece as a reminder of possibilities.

    I once asked an older woman on a plane to recommend a book, and it’s how I learned of M. Scott Peck’s invaluable Road Less Traveled.

    Emerson had another question he often used to open up connections: “What have you learned since last we met?”


  3. I’m all for anything that helps two generations make a connection.

    I had a similar conversation with a new foster mom about, funnily enough, The Hunger Games. She’d overheard a friend and I comparing and contrasting the first book with its movie. Her foster son wanted to read it because everyone else in school was. She was worried that it would traumatize him since he’d come from a very bad situation (and I mean VERY BAD) since she’d heard it had a lot of violence. I recommended that she read it first then make the call, since I didn’t know her foster son or how he might react to it. She asked me if I’d let my son read it (he is a year younger than her foster son). But by that point, mine had gone through the entire HP series, LOTR, The Hobbit, and was now going through my military SF books.

    I ran into the same woman a couple of months later. Both she and her foster son had read the book, and it had opened up the lines of communication, not only with her, but with his therapist as well. And he was starting to do better in school.

  4. Al the Great and Powerful

    I read a book or more every day, so talking about books each time I got called would be a string of reviews, not an ongoing discussion about just one…

  5. Too bad the article is behind a paywall. I’d love to share it on FB. Bummer.

  6. Don’t tell the author of the original post, but the most adorable online gamer, Shirley Curry, got started to have something to talk about with her grandkids, and she found out she really liked it 😀 She’s 80 years old and records her game sessions on YouTube. Doesn’t have to be reading…

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