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.
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:
- 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.
- I’ve become a better writer. Reading exposed me to various styles of writing, to complex language, and to new methods of organizing ideas.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- My concentration improved. Sometimes a book, especially non-fiction makes my brain work hard to understand the concepts that are delivered in the text.
- 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!
- 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.