Recently I’ve seen quite a few ‘Books That Have Changed Me’ posts around the blogosphere, and I really love the idea that books and stories can change us in some way. I know that I personally have felt that certain stories and certain characters have really resonated with me, and in some small way have made me see the world a little differently.
But this got me thinking – does reading itself change us? Being exposed to so many points of view and different types of people and places must surely broaden the mind in some way, and I’d really love to think that it does. Whilst TV can tell us stories, it does so in a completely different way: on TV we look at a person and attempt to gauge their inner thoughts from expressions in much the same way we would in real life, whereas in a book we can see through the eyes of a character (or at least know their thoughts), and see what it’s actually like to walk in their shoes. Fictional writing, as something communicated directly from one person (the writer) to another (the reader), seems to me to be the purest form of story telling.
But what effect does that ultimately have on us as readers? Does it improve us, or give us unrealistic expectations of people and the world? Does it make us more sympathetic and tolerant towards others? Or more cynical perhaps? And all those stories that stick with us throughout the years, all those books that ‘changed us’, what exactly have they changed?
Well here’s a few of my thoughts on the subject…
- Reading enhances the imagination.
There’s no question that reading requires imagination: reading is essentially the act of taking in words and turning them into a mental image of a story. When the imagination is exercised regularly (eg. you read regularly) it would be reasonable to assume that it strengthens and sharpens it, until you are a far more imaginative person than before.
For example, as a child when I first got into reading (at a pretty young age!), I would always imagine myself in my favourite books (did anyone else ever used to do this, or am I officially a crazy person? Didn’t every kid dream of going to Hogwarts?), but as I grew older and my imagination developed, this in turn led to me making up my own worlds, full of my own characters living out my own story. Which leads me on to…
- Reading can make you more creative.
Whilst a lot of people who don’t write do read, it would be fair to say that all writers read. It would be pretty much impossible to be a writer if you didn’t read and so had no frame of reference or inspirational at all! Therefore I feel it’s fair to say that reading can spark a desire to create in people, and I know from experience that reading something amazing really does just make me want to write and write and write (and then probably cry because it will never be as incredible as what I’ve just read!). Just think of the amount of films, performances, songs and piece of artwork which have been inspired by, or are even direct adaptations of books, if you want to get a feel for the scope of the creativity reading can inspire!
- Reading teaches you things and can make you smarter.
I’m by no means saying here that non-readers aren’t smart, because of course that’s not true! However, reading can definitely teach us so much, hence why most schools, colleges and universities usually give you things to read in order to learn things.
It isn’t just the actual facts stated in books either that can improve your knowledge and make you smarter: reading itself has been scientifically proven to improve a person’s vocabulary, concentration skills and analytical skills.
- Reading shows us what it is to be human.
We can never know what it is actually like to be anyone but ourselves, but fiction is probably the closest we’ll ever come. Being a human is essentially a pretty lonely thing, but through books we can see such a wide range of different perspectives and people, and experience things we will never experience ourselves, and in this way it truly captures the essence of what it is to be a person, a single consciousness in this world of billions of other people. Fiction shows us other people feeling the same things we have, and suffered the same things we have (and loads of other things that we haven’t), and in some way I think it can make us feel less alone.
So what do you think? Does reading change us as people, and if so, how?