Why read?

Why read?

By Regina Wenger

A version of this article first appeared in the October issue of The Mennonite.

My new neighbor asked me what I do for a living. I replied instinctively, “I read.” It’s true; 80 percent of what I do at this point in my graduate program involves reading. However, it was the automatic nature of my response that caused me to contemplate why I’ve found myself in a profession so saturated with books. Why do I love reading, and what is it about books that draws me to them?

Fortunately, I grew up in a family that values reading. My parents read to my sister Charlotte and me from the books that abounded in our home. When we were old enough, summers involved getting dropped off at the library while Mom and Dad were at work so we could capitalize on Dad’s incentivized reading program, “A Penny a Page.” That rewards program only lasted a couple of summers before Charlotte and I acquired the desired habit and read so much that we “broke the bank.” It was also at age 7 when I picked up my first presidential biography and fell in love with American history, the subject I’m now pursuing for my doctorate. I had a privileged childhood that granted me easy access to books, and that has done much to cultivate my love of them.

I’ve also tried to be intentional about engaging different types of literature other than the nonfiction that so dominates my life. For the last year, two friends from high school and I have been in a monthly Skype book club that has us working through unread titles from PBS’s “Great American Read” list. I’ve also fed my poetry fix by chatting weekly with a friend in Indiana as we work our way—act by act—through Shakespeare’s Richard III. These habits are important to me because, as my graduate director put it, “It reminds us why we love reading.” In that spirit, here are three reasons I love reading and why I think it’s important to read regardless of level, genre or medium.

  1. Reading improves writing.

It’s been documented how reading results enriches vocabulary and the ability to articulate complex ideas. However, creativity is the most important thing that comes from the reading-writing relationship. One practice stokes a desire to partake in the other. Books introduce ideas and provide them space to germinate, while writing supplies the means to express and expand those ideas as refracted through one’s imagination and experience.

  1. Reading cultivates empathy and perspective.

Books can give us the ability to view the world through another’s eyes. The Diary of Anne Frank helps us see the horrors of the Holocaust from the vantage point of a Jewish girl caught in its jaws. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Shūsaku Endō’s Silence, though fiction, provide helpful counternarratives on Christianity and colonialism. It’s more difficult to alienate a person or dismiss a point of view once we’ve encountered them and their world. This enlarges our capacity to love. It requires going outside our comfort zones, but if we are taking the risk, one place to venture is in the pages of a book.

  1. Reading is counter-cultural.

In our instant and busy world, books require us to slow down. It takes time to savor the pleasure of a good book. Also, grasping the intricacies of a finely honed plot or argument requires an investment of time. Especially in a world that communicates in 280-character statements, books compel us to take the long view and remember that words have power. In books we also recall that everything has a beginning, middle and end. That’s a strange message in a world rife with aimlessness and feelings of invisibility.

As people of the Book, we should call to mind these realities often, for we know the transformative power of story. More than just a literacy tool, the Bible provides the narrative from which we gain our primary identity and purpose. Whether literature, the Bible or any other text, read so that you may be changed, growing more in knowledge and love for your neighbor and your Lord.

Guest post by Regina Wenger, a doctoral student in history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Thanks to Regina for letting us repost this here.