Words and Photos by Victoria Storm
I think you’re probably reading wrong. And I’m not about to tell you to read for ten minutes before bed and listen to an audiobook in the car to fit more reading in and then declare you fixed. In fact, I think that is the problem. I don't think we're taking this seriously at all.
Let me ask, do you enjoy being a person in the world? If the answer is no, would you like to enjoy it? Have you ever uttered or caught yourself nodding as someone else uttered "there just isn't a how-to manual for life"?
Well, let's hit the brakes: there is. It's millions of pages long and it spans over all the centuries to the beginning of when someone created written language, a statistic that's not vital enough to my argument for me to look up. Books. The manual is books.
Books are fine, you protest, but they are not everything. Well, let's cement the power of the written word. Chris Kraus said in I Love Dick “It's better than sex. Reading delivers on the promise that sex raises but hardly ever can fulfill -- getting larger cause you're entering another person's language, cadence, heart and mind.”
I would go one further, reading delivers on the promise that conversation raises. For some reason, we've elevated Civil Discourse like it's going to take us, as a society, to enlightenment. As if me trying to remain calm while telling some guy that as a woman I feel unsafe because I am unsafe not because I'm neurotic and then gritting my teeth while he tells me the ways I'm wrong about the female experience is the highest form of culture. Throw the book at him! Any book. In this case maybe Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, or possibly a larger book that will hurt a little more.
I've rarely walked away from conversation with my mind changed, unless it's conversation with people I really trust and changing my mind was half the point to begin with. But books!
Books will change the way we view and interact with the world, if we let them. They're an "escape," sure, they "take us to other worlds," okay? That sounds like something your elementary librarian said to try and get you to read something other than Junie B. Jones. Books aren't supposed to remove you from yourself, that's what Netflix is for. When you come-to after an eight-episode binge, dazed and covered in takeout boxes, you don't exactly think "this is a feeling I want to chase," so honestly I'm not even sure why you'd want books to be that. Instead, books can push you deep into something you might never have understood otherwise through the power of story. Because when you’re reading, instead of sitting there waiting to inject your opinion the way you do in a conversation (don’t pretend you are better than this), you are a passive listener. You’re taking in instead of pushing back, hopefully with your guard down, leaving room for you to understand someone else. You could come to understand what it’s like to be an immigrant, the pain of a miscarriage, things that otherwise would be so far outside of your personal experience you couldn’t touch them. Or you might just put a few more words to what you feel right now, your stage of life.
Story is a doorway into empathy. Being able to understand someone and have compassion for her will objectively make you a better person and while the best way to do that might be a face-to-face encounter with someone different than you, that’s not always possible. Stories are a close second, allowing you to experience emotions and situations that people might feel uncomfortable telling you themselves. Books can fix you. They can take all the parts of you that are rough or ugly, unsympathetic or ignorant, and FIX THEM. I am growing crazed, I understand. But do you understand?
Beyond just empathy and interpersonal growth and learning, books allow us to grow and learn in any direction we want. You can teach yourself to cook and thus gain financial stability because you no longer have to order postmates three meals a day every day. You can teach yourself to code and become a tech superstar instead of a customer service representative questioning the futility of your life. You can learn how to be a better parent or citizen or friend or how to start your own circus that is kind to animals because that seems like a real gap in the market. It’s You 2.0.
It starts with reading better books. Everything in moderation, I concede, but if your bookshelf is exclusively marketed as Beach Reads you are cheating yourself. It's not just genre, well-written novels and memoirs can sometimes teach you more and stick with you more than classic non-fiction. (Remember the power of story?) At this point I am compelled to plug my newsletter -- Becoming Literate -- which I created solely to recommend books to you. Beyond just learning about human beings and perspectives and how to build houses and stuff, good writing can elevate our view of the English language (and transmute to you how to create good writing yourself).
Part two is taking time to think about what you're reading instead of just hoping to the next thing, cue Lady Bird turning on the radio with tears still in her eyes from the ending of Grapes of Wrath. This is something I’m exceptionally bad at, but reading will only help you if you put in the time and the work to assimilate what you read into your life. Sit with it, take notes, talk to a friend about, write a goodreads review, whatever it takes for you to bring it with you.
There is such a thing as reading for nothing but pleasure, and it's not wrong. (I say, the Authority granting you permission to finish Me Before You) I listen almost exclusively to Drake and I consider Grey's Anatomy to be Literature, so I'm in no position to draw a hard line between High and Low culture. Those differentiations are mostly drawn on sexist, ageist, problematic lines anyway. But reading books that challenge you, that extend beyond your perspective and comfort zone, is giving yourself a gift. I'm just a girl, sitting in front of her computer, imploring you to read something that might light up some parts of your brain and then pause after and think, "what did I just feel and why? how can I take that with me into the real world?"