How does reading change us?

While reading, I observe and interact with the world through another’s body and mind. Closing a book and returning into myself, I’m not quite the same person. I change from reading.Growing up a voracious reader, I was drawn to books both for the beauty of the stories and language and for their power to transport and change me.

I mean “transport” in two ways. Books transport me to different times and places, and they transport me out of my self. While reading, I enter another’s body and mind, occupy another’s position in space and time, observe and interact with the world through another’s way of thinking. Which brings me to the change part: Closing a book and returning into myself, I’m not quite the same person.

Obviously, I still look the same, on the outside. Also, disappointingly, I continue to battle my personal limitations, including impulsiveness, a tendency to procrastinate, and a complete lack of tolerance for traffic jams. Still, something happens on the inside while reading that manifests outwardly in how I respond to and interact with the world long after I’ve put the book down.

When asked to name books that have changed me, the first that come to mind tend to be Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, and Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Their impact may be most evident because each puts me inside a world so manifestly outside of my own experiences. They humble me by revealing how little I know of the vast, beautiful, terrible world. (Socrates’ wonderful “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing” comes to mind.) They also show me how people whose lives are so different from my own can share familiar joys and longings. This, in turn, makes me feel less fearful of the unfamiliar because I recognize our shared humanity. Which then creates the conditions for me to become more empathetic and more careful about judging things I haven’t experienced and don’t understand.

I can point to places in the texts that generate those individual “aha” moments. What’s harder is accounting for the alchemical processes, the bits and pieces along the way that accumulate into the big “aha” moments. For example: Why did I pick up these books in the first place? What made me receptive to these experiences? What was I seeking to understand, and why? What has each book contributed to how I experience and interact with the world? How does each book become a piece of a larger puzzle that explains how I (have) evolve(d) over time? Can I even quantify this? And why do I want to try?

I mean, that’s a fair question, isn’t it? Am I trying to understand something that is beyond the scope of what can be known? Is it more productive to put my energy into something more tangible? We are, each of us, products of experiences and influences that are too vast to contain in a tidy formula. Maybe it’s like Pi, expanding infinitely, and I’ll only go full Mrs. Havisham crazy trying to chase it down.

But how can I not want to try?

Of all the arts, books grant us a unique opportunity to inhabit another’s world, internal and external – we, the readers, must do that work of breathing life into a story. That is, essentially, the definition of empathy: the ability to put oneself in others’ shoes and understand their feelings from their points of reference. And nothing feels more essential than understanding how to cultivate empathy.

I’ll carry on trying to figure it out, in some way. In the meantime, I would love to hear thoughts from other readers about the books that have changed you or what you have learned about empathy through reading.

4 Replies to “How does reading change us?”

  1. Reading has changed me as well. The book that blew apart my world is The Handmaid’s Tale. It shattered me in the best way and allowed me to put myself back together into a more aware, thoughtful person. At least, I hope so.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Loreen. I identify so much with the way you describe this experience: “It shattered me in the best way and allowed me to put myself back together into a more aware, thoughtful person.” That captures the experience beautifully.

  2. This was such a lovely and thought-provoking piece. I also laughed at “full Mrs. Havisham crazy ” – yeah, definitely don’t let things get to that point! 🙂

    I feel like you, I think, about reading. If I like a book, I connect with the characters and situation and feel transported. Many of the books I’ve read have stayed with me in different ways – way too many to list here, alas. I also love it when you find a book that so, so perfectly puts some feeling you have that you can’t quite express. Like how “Froth on the Daydream” by Boris Vian says so much about love and brokenheartedness, or how “A Little Princess” just perfectly shows the power of imagination, hope, and human kindness.

    Or even non-fiction books where you see yourself or a part of your experience in them. I was reading an essay by David Sedaris the other day, where he says something along the lines of knowing that his family isn’t perfect but that being a part of it is like being a part of some exclusive club, and no one will be as special or as interesting as those club members. I don’t EXACTLY think that about my own family, but I completely get what he means, and I imagine most people who are close with their families – or who just can’t break away – do, too, to a certain extent.

    Whew, thanks again for yet another big idea to think about! I know it’ll be in my mind for a good, long time, but I will try to hold back and not let all the questions you raise drive me “full Mrs. Havisham crazy” , either. 🙂 (Although if I have to pick an old lady “uniform”, a disheveled, decaying wedding dress is fine by me.)

    1. Ha ha ha, the last line made me laugh so hard. There’s something intensely cathartic reading about how totally mental she is, you know?

      Thank you for sharing your more serious thoughts as well. I hear you about nonfiction. I just realized, in fact, that two of the books I listed above are nonfiction! Funny I hadn’t thought of it. I love how you put this: “I also love it when you find a book that so, so perfectly puts some feeling you have that you can’t quite express.” You capture it perfectly!

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