Why Read Books?

goblet of fire

This summer I had two wonderful experiences reading books. The first was reading War and Peace, which took me the better part of the summer, but was one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I have ever had. The second was The Importance of Being Earnest, which I read in an afternoon, laughing out loud at many parts. Completely different works, but both rewarding experiences. I have done some posts on what I do on the second day of school: read a story, read a poem, or look at an image. But on the first day of school I like to set the stage for the study of literature and why it’s important. (Keep in mind, I’m an introvert and ice breakers and get-to-know-you games are pretty high on my list of things I despise, so this is what I do instead.) Many of my students don’t like to read, and many of them – even in an AP class – claim to have gone through their high school education without reading a book in school. Since we will spend our year exploring both classic and popular works of literature, here are the reasons I tell them why everyone should read. A lot of parallels can be drawn here to the Harry Potter series, so I will do so. 1. Books are the containers for the wisdom of the world. For a long time people have used stories to teach important lessons: Aesop’s fables, the Greek myths, and stories from various religions. Storytelling is a powerful way to impart knowledge because it allows people to live the lesson rather than just hear it. Some inferior ways of imparting those lessons fall by the wayside, others that combine these lessons with good storytelling stand the test of time. We can tell people “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” but the lesson becomes much more powerful and memorable through the character of Atticus Finch. In a similar fashion, my students have told me that their initial reason for reading Harry Potter is to be immersed in the imaginative world of Hogwart’s. No one really picks up a novel to learn something; first and foremost we want to be entertained. However, there is a great deal of wisdom in the series, such as this quote from Dumbledore: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” My students will tell me that upon reading the book a second time, the important themes in this series become clear and relevant if they missed them the first time. This doesn’t guarantee that 100 years from now we’ll be reading Harry Potter or To Kill A Mockingbird, but the lessons that those books impart will appear in literature forever.

2. Books allow us to be part of a community. I would imagine that everyone that has graduated high school in the United States has read (or at least is familiar with) the story of Romeo and Juliet. Knowledge about Romeo and Juliet isn’t particularly useful, but it’s something that we have as a cultural touchstone for all of us. Regardless of the subject matter, there is a great deal of value in having things that all of us know that is part of our shared knowledge. We also form communities around books in the form of book clubs. Some are more serious than others (some I know of are more about drinking wine and gossip rather than about discussing books.) However, The foundation is based on the premise that creating books and building a community around a shared experience is worthwhile. In a similar fashion, those who have read Harry Potter have formed their own communities that keep the stories alive and relevant. They post listicles and memes, plan pilgrimages to the theme park, and write fan fiction about the novels. I would imagine that for these groups of people, anyone who claims to be into Harry Potter who has only seen the movies (or worse, only read the summaries) would be tagged as an impostor by those members of the community. You have to read the books or you’re not a TRUE Harry Potter fan because you haven’t really experienced it. We can say the same for any book that we read.

3. Literature allows us glimpses into the human soul. Everyone is probably familiar with Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” or at least the last few lines. Here’s the summary of the poem from Gradesaver: “The narrator comes upon a fork in the road while walking through a yellow wood. He considers both paths and concludes that each one is equally well-traveled and appealing. After choosing one of the roads, the narrator tells himself that he will come back to this fork one day in order to try the other road. However, he realizes that it is unlikely that he will ever have the opportunity to come back to this specific point in time because his choice of path will simply lead to other forks in the road (and other decisions). The narrator ends on a nostalgic note, wondering how different things would have been had he chosen the other path.” Not only does this take just as long to read as the poem, but we also can’t argue that it’s the same experience as reading the poem. We haven’t lived the poem like we have when we read it. The summary doesn’t connect to us emotionally. The study of literature is basically the study of an art form that people use to work out the world’s problems. I recently talked to someone who suffered for bulimia for twelve years and one of the ways that she worked through it was by writing daily in here journal. She wasn’t working math problems or doing science experiments. There’s a difference between learning ABOUT a work of literature and experiencing it. We could cover a lot of ground in English classes if we simply read summaries of the great books and memorized why we should read them. But there’s no substitute for immersing yourself in the work and letting it touch your soul. There’s no question that Harry Potter has affected readers in this way. Our hope as educators is to find works that will encourage this same level of engagement. They may need some help along the way from us, but as guides we can show them what great literature has to offer them as they go off into the world.    

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