Reading has always been seen as a respectable activity. Anyone looking to add a touch of sophistication to their look clutches a hardback under their elbow. Professional photographers have bookcases in the background of their studio, brightly coloured spines just visible to give an air of intellectualism. I certainly know people who consider bookcases to be standard decoration for any household; they build the shelves and then think about ways to fill them as an afterthought.
The association goes deep and us bookish types tend either to be respected or disparaged because of it.
I have always gone along with the ‘if you read a lot, you’re probably smart’ ideology, but I hadn’t put much thought into the actual process of reading MAKING us smarter until very recently. When I considered literacy among school children, for example, I had thought only within the paradigm of practicality. People have to learn to read, the more efficiently, the better; it’s a method of acquiring new knowledge. People must learn to write, the more accurately, the better; it is an essential means of communication. No child could go without these fundamental skills.
But what about the deeper, more emotional functions of reading? I must admit that, until recently, it simply had not occurred to me that the content of the books we read is equally as important as the actual act of reading them.
Allow me to backtrack a little.
What do we do when we sink into a good book? What is our brain doing and what are our eyes seeing? The answer is, of course, somebody else’s world. You are imagining the life of somebody else, you are scared along with the characters in a book, you suffer with them, feel joy, love and anger alongside them.
The act of reading, therefore, represents the constant process of putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes
Harry Potter (yes, I know, I just can’t stop myself going back to him) is not just a wizard- he is an orphan. Ron feels out-shined by older siblings and Hermione is an ethnic minority.
(In fact, thinking about it, this is almost certainly the reason why the actress playing her in The Cursed Child production is black. Perhaps this concept of social prejudice was difficult to portray from a spectator’s point of view where you are less immersed in the story. Perhaps they chose to revert to something more obvious to mark her as different. Another reason to hail the power of reading!)
Ultimately, all of this is important to the reader and all of this widens our perspective back in the real world. Multiply this journey in empathy by 100 and that’s how many YA novels a young bookworm can get through in a year. That’s one hell of an emotional journey. And it is one that non-readers miss out on.
The implications of this are huge. Excuse me if I seem overly-intrigued by this topic, but even today this phenomenon could be seen as being implicitly in the headlines. Take Donald Trump’s voter base; it is often accused of being predominantly made-up of “uneducated white men”. The term ‘uneducated’ is the key here. To generalise, given the importance of reading in a basic education, we might say that people who have received a worse education have inevitably read less. Is it any coincidence that these same people are loudly agreeing with Trump when he voices narrow-minded prejudices? Perhaps a lack of tolerance, a lack of empathy, may well link right back to whether or not you read.
This discussion has become a little too generalised, and I’m aware that prejudice is a touchy subject. There are plenty of Trump supporters who are extremely empathetic and more than a few than enjoy reading, I’m sure. Equally, many Clinton supporters will vote for her after having not read a book in years. We should never speak in absolutes, and please believe me when I say that politics does not lie at the heart of this blog post.
All of this hypothesising simply leaves me feeling more privileged than ever for having grown up in an environment where reading material was not only constantly available, but where reading was also actively encouraged. The consequences of not reading, naturally, are different from person to person, but I think us readers should all be thankful for the huge influence that this experience has had on our lives. I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it.