How Books Change Us

When I finish a book, I stop to think about how reading the book changed me. Sometimes it doesn’t feel as if the book created any changes and then, a few days later, I find that — more than entertaining me — the book offered a new way of thinking or a new set of skills.

My subconscious mind absorbed aspects that I didn’t understand initially. New ideas percolated in my brain as I reviewed aspects of what I read.

Some books have an immediate and long-lasting effect. I think of A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles or Five Little Indians by Michelle Good or The Testaments by Margaret Atwood or Educated by Tara Westover or Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North. I also think of classics by George Orwell, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and Joseph Conrad. These writers authored books that changed me.

Books Can Be Viewed as Technology

A few months ago I was introduced to Angus Fletcher’s book, Wonderworks. Fletcher is an academic who has a degree in neuroscience along with a Ph.D. in literature. The book positions literature as a technology with inventions beginning centuries ago. 

Fletcher traces the contributions beginning with ancient Greek writers including philosophers such as Aristotle, classic Chinese novelists from the Ming dynasty, romance writers such as Jane Austen, up to modern writers including Maya Angelou and countless others. He describes in detail how each famous writer built on the inventions of those from previous times.  Fletcher reaches back some twenty-five centuries to show how authors created stories that touched all aspects of humanity.

Throughout the book, Fletcher describes the benefits and pleasures to be obtained from reading books, plays, and poetry. He argues that we can learn from sad works such as Shakespeare’s plays Macbeth or Hamlet just as we can be cheered from reading romantic comedies. The stories told can alleviate grief, anxiety, and loneliness as well as heal us with tales of courage, gratitude, love and wonder. 

assorted-title book lot
Books Can Change Us — photo courtesy of Ed Robertson on Unsplash

A New Perspective from Books

Books allow the reader to see the world from a new perspective.  By analyzing the feelings and actions of various characters in a novel or memoir, it’s possible to find small glimpses of oneself. Often, a book helps me understand how I think and feel along with highlighting the personal truths that influence my life. 

Stories provide a new frame of reference.  Characters evoke emotions.  We feel what the characters in the story feel.  Books allow us to see the world in the way a character sees the world. Through the narrative, we understand the world in a broader context. We understand and accept different viewpoints through the character’s experiences.

Books provide healing, courage, joy and gratitude. When an author shares their deepest feelings, I experience anew some of my buried emotions. These indirect perspectives give a new perspective. I change because I read!

How books Change Me

Here are some of the ways I changed from reading: 

  1. I developed more empathy. My capacity for compassion increased from living in someone else’s reality because an author helped me to enter into the head of a character. 
  2. I’ve become a better writer. Reading exposed me to various styles of writing, to complex language, and to new methods of organizing ideas.
  3. I’ve become a bigger and better person from the sense of wonder an author used to connect me to the story. I will never forget Amanda Gorman’s poem at the Biden inauguration along with her call for each person to reach deeply into themselves for goodness and hope.
  4. I’ve learned how to escape from crushing reality situations. During COVID lockdowns, historical fiction and fantasy books helped me get through days of isolation.
  5. I’ve been inspired to change habits.  After retirement, reading about longevity strategies encouraged me to adopt better nutrition, daily exercise and changes to my sleep patterns.
  6. My concentration improved. Sometimes a book, especially non-fiction makes my brain work hard to understand the concepts that are delivered in the text. 
  7. The intellectual stimulation from reading has inspired my tenacity, creativity, and problem-solving capacity. I learned how to knit by following techniques from a book. I’ve struggled to learn bridge conventions, first from books, and then from practicing with friends!
  8. Finally, reading brings immense pleasure. And, research into ageing shows that reading (along with solving math problems) may limit cognitive decline. The mental stimulation keeps brain activity high. 

I can’t imagine growing older without the pleasure of books. I hope that reading helps me to avoid cognitive decline, but more than that, I hope that books continue to change and delight me in so many ways.

6 Replies to “How Books Change Us”

  1. Books got me through Covid as well!!!

    1. No kidding — many of us lost ourselves in books during long periods of quarantine!

  2. This is a wonderful post! It is so well written – I can tell you must have read a lot of good books! I think of my grandmother who lived until she was 98. She had her mind until the end. She was a voracious reader, and I attribute that to her reading. She would say, “I can go anywhere – in a book.”

    I have been a big fan of Bill Bryson, Dave Barry and Erma Bombeck. All humorists. If I had any success at all writing humorously in my posts, it is due to the influence of these writers on my brain.

    Your post also makes me think of how many times I cringed in my career, when there was talk that students should only take courses directly related to getting started in a career. (I worked in a community college.) I would think about all the “soft skills” employers would say over and over again that were lacking. “Soft skills” like getting along with others, problem solving, conflict resolution, and creativity. Yet, the link from soft skills to humanities sometimes didn’t seem to be made. I know reading has made me a more empathetic and compassionate person.

    I have a post scheduled on Saturday. It is already written. In my post, I recommend a series by another blogger. I mention how reading this series has made me a better person. Your post elaborates on this in a most eloquent way.

    Lastly, I think of Mark Twain’s quote about reading – “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” Reading is certainly a joy in my life, too!

    1. Hi Betty,
      Please excuse the delay in my response to your kind comment on my last blog post. We had a work gang at the cottage for a couple of days to do the fall cleanup. My part of the work was preparing the meals! Thankfully most of the work finished this morning just as we got the first snow for the season!

      As a regular reader of your blog posts, I can understand how humorists have influenced your style. Every post you write brings a smile — to say nothing of the Friday funnies and some of the pictures you post on your Wordless Wednesdays. Keep it up as you have many fans!

      Your experiences with students at the college made me remember one of the professors at McGill when I was in the MSW program. Inevitably she had us reading novels and stories to develop skills for understanding grief, homelessness, homosexuality, racism, abandonment, etc. We wondered why she chose stories rather than academic works but her classes are memorable. She also encouraged us to attend movies and live theatre to broaden our understanding of how people actually experience life.

      I hope you keep reading and keep writing those lovely blog posts at Chambers on the Road!

      Be well,
      Jeanette

  3. I agree! Books can, and do change us. They allow us to see things from different points of view, introduce new ideas, and even just give us a much-needed escape from stressful times. And they probably were the “new technology” when the printing press was first invented!

    1. Hi Ann, There have been many times in my life that I needed the escape offered by books. I’m not sure how I would have weathered the long periods of COVID quarantine without books. I downloaded several when I finished reading the pile that had accumulated beside my bed. Although I like the convenience of reading online, I confess that holding the paper version is my preferred way of reading. Perhaps it’s an age thing, but give me a real book!
      Be well,
      Jeanette

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