Wednesday, December 5, 2012

why reading rocks

I love Twilight. Seriously. Vividly, I recall the very first time I saw the shiny black novel, thicker than the Bible, with two pale arms caressing red apple. Oh, I was twelve and intrigued and the next Clique book wouldn’t be out for months, so I begged my father to take me to the library for a weekly book roundup and I pulled that black book off the shelf and piled it in my arms amongst other young adult fiction and headed home, excited to spend the rest of my weekend immersed in books.

I read the back of it, furrowed my brow, unclear exactly on the plot. Who was Edward? And why was this girl irrevocably in love with him? Upon reading the word vampire immediately my mind created an image of a white-skinned man with raven black hair, blood-stained lips and a purple cape. Why, exactly did this girl love this creature, irrevocably, at that? I was lost. And upon opening the book, found myself incomparably bored, and turned to something more realistic instead – though I will never understand why, exactly, my naïve tween brain found the Gossip Girl series realistic. Twilight sat on my dresser, forgotten until its return date, and I vowed to myself to never attempt to read it again – though I would surely break that promise.

I was thirteen and at the pinnacle of cool when I gave Twilight a second chance. I read it the day I took the entrance exam for my high school, and it was cold and blustery and so very November outside. I spent the car ride with my dad there and back enraptured in the book – I finished it in a day. I was thoroughly obsessed. I couldn’t get enough of Bella and Edward and the gang, and so my Twilight phase began.

It became a running joke, amongst my family, my friends, my teachers, and I couldn’t really bring myself to care. There was just something about this series that sparked the flame of my love of reading into an inferno.

Nostalgia aside, I know. The Twilight series isn’t good. Critics call it potentially demeaning, poorly written, unoriginal, and so on. I’ve heard it all before, in fact, I agree. But who’s to say what qualifies a good book? Why criticize someone for reading these books when they’re still reading?

I think that what I love about Twilight is not the supernatural romance between a teenage girl and a one hundred year old vampire, but the love of reading it ignited across an entire culture. For a long time, Twilight was everywhere. As it became a film series, I couldn’t go into the local Borders, may it rest in peace, without being assaulted by horrifying advertisements for it, like this series of black or tan 4XL tee shirts warring one another with their obnoxious Team Edward versus Team Jacob designs or weird looking canvas messenger bags that proclaimed the wearer’s wish to be bitten. But besides being an obvious moneymaker, what’s so great about Twilight and other franchise trilogies like The Hunger Games or even 50 Shades of Gray is that they encourage reading in people who may not otherwise choose to read for fun.

Reading rocks. It’s probably one of the coolest things you do without even thinking.
We learn to read when we’re really young in our culture. These days, they even have programs to have children reading and comprehending younger and younger, though I’m not really sure about the validity of those programs. Point is, you learn to read when you’re a kid and it’s ingrained – you’re probably never going to forget (unless like novelist Howard Engel, you suffer from a condition called alexia sine agraphia, which means that though you maintain the ability to write you can no longer read. In his memoir, The Man Who Forgot How to Read, Engel explains his journey). A lot of the time, though, reading for children is absolute torture.

For me, as a child, reading was recreational, to this day, it’s still fun. For a long time my best friends lived in printed words in novels, and I would much rather have read the next Babysitter’s Club than play red rover during recess. Of course, things changed. I grew up and found real friendship more satisfying; I finished the Babysitter’s Club series and moved onto bigger and better things. Though as I grew, so did my love of reading.

I was in the fifth grade the first time I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It’s advertized as a children’s novel, but the concepts it explores are relatable at any age, I’ve found. That novel really challenged me, and forced me to ask questions, to grab a dictionary and look up all the unfamiliar words. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is one of the first introductions I had to the Holocaust, and The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, which I read a few years later, furthered my knowledge of the time period. I don’t remember where I learned it, but I entered high school having a brief idea of Freudian psychology – when we read a book called The Chosen by Chaim Potok, which detailed the unlikely riendship between two Jewish young men, one Orthodox and one Hasidic, a few references were made to Freud and I was one of the only in my class to know who he was. The sheer amount of Judy Blume I read from third grade to sixth grade helped me understand adolescence and one in particular, Just As Long As We’re Together prompted me to have “the talk” with my mom. I learned about scoliosis from her novel Deenie, and I’m pretty sure every girl in my grade school felt like a grownup after reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. And The Babysitter’s Club made me want to form my own babysitting task force. I’ve only recently begun to appreciate non-fiction, probably from my foray into non-fiction writing last spring, but that’s a story for another day. Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” nearly brought me to tears when I read it, and Tina Fey’s autobiography had me laughing aloud. There’s something so fantastic about books, both fiction and non-fiction, that they’re able to bring out these visceral reactions in their readers. But that’s only one reason why I love reading, and why I think more people should read for pleasure.

There are a myriad of benefits to reading fiction or non-fiction: you can learn about other cultures, expand your vocabulary, improve your focus, and build your self-esteem.

But why read when you can find most of the information you learn from books on the Internet? Why open a memoir about an Iranian girl’s experience growing up in America when you could surely find a Wikipedia page on it? Or why read a novel about an eight-year-old boy’s struggles with his loss from 9/11 when you’ve seen it on the news?

When you read, you have to concentrate. Your brain is at work – it’s an exceptionally active mental process. Movies and the Internet are still valid ways of learning, of course. However, informational pages on the Internet are made to be brief – they’re cold, and surfing the Internet can be very disjointed. You aren’t always getting all the information you need. In his article, “The 26 Advantages to Reading More Books” Brad Isaac says, “reading books takes brain power. It requires you to focus on what you’re reading for longer periods…Books tell the whole story.” The Internet is constantly susceptible to change – anyone can create or alter a website these days.

Reading is holistic; you gain perspective. That’s something that’s missing in film, which is most often limited to third person. When you read, you jump into someone else’s mind. There’s a lot to be said about the different points of view you’re offered in a fiction piece narrated by a black slave compared to a white Southerner during the Civil War antebellum. Even the gender of a character or narrator can influence how you perceive the plot of the novel – which is so cool. Whether or not you like the book, it probably impacts you in some way. Your mind is working to string together letters into words and words into sentences to produce an image in your brain, to make you feel something: to really impact you, maybe to change the way you view the world or to inform you on something you don’t really know about.

You can learn from reading non-fiction, too, whether it’s a memoir, a collection of essays, a how-to book, an article in The Huffington Post or an in-depth analysis of Russia during the 19th century (something you could also explore in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina). All of these provide readers with insight and tools to learn more, and are often more in-depth and potent than a brief informational, bullet proof list on the Internet is.

Reading takes you on a journey. Not only do books provide outstanding learning opportunities, they’re also a source of entertainment. And if one book bores you, there’s absolutely no shame in putting it down and picking up another. Reading provides an escape. It’s tactile, and singular. You get to live in someone else’s mind for however long the book you pick up is, and for however long you read, that’s all your brain is focusing on, bar outside distractions.

Reading unites us as a people. That’s why high schools and universities these days are implementing the Common Read – it provides students with a shared knowledge. Not only does that mean students can talk to each other about the books, but that they can share in the spread of this knowledge – knowledge they’ve gathered from reading these books – with other people. How many conversations have you had about a book you’ve read? I know I’ve had thousands – friends and family members alike constantly ask me for reading recommendations.

In learning holistically from books, you become more confident. Honestly, reading for fun makes me feel good. A lot of times, I learn that I’m not alone. That I’m not the only one who feels weird eating meat sometimes, or that it’s honestly okay that I don’t have all the answers.             

Reading is fundamental. There’s a reason English literature is considered a humanity – literature documents human experience. And by reading, you’re sharing in that experience, and really, that’s so, so unbelievable.

I’ve met so many people in my life that hate reading, and that makes me sad. I love movies, I love television, but there’s something so engaging about the stories in books that makes me want to read always. There’s often nothing missing from a really good book.

So, find the spare time to read – in the car, waiting for an appointment, during your class breaks, when you want to be alone, before you fall asleep – that’s when I find the time to read. There is time, if only you reach out and take it.

I think you should read. For fun. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Read Vogue or Sports Illustrated or the front page of the news, if you have to. Go forth and read. And the next time you meet someone who says their favorite book is The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, hold back your grimace, and tell them that you like reading, too. 


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