From the moment I learned to read, I have have been a voracious reader. I read in the car on long trips, I snuck a flashlight into my bedroom to read under the covers when I was too close to the end to put a book down, and I begged my parents to buy me at least one new book before every vacation. I loved summer reading programs, was a faithful customer at Pizza Hut (because of all of those free personal pans), and now have a collection of books that my husband refers to as my word children.
In short, I love the written word.
But as a child, I never really paid attention to the kind of reading that I was doing. I devoured The Babysitters Club, Nancy Drew Case Files, and The Sweet Valley Twins. By fifth grade I had added the Sunfire historical teen romances to my collection, immersed in silly love stories that gave me fantasies that would remain unfulfilled for years to come. I read the occasional serious fiction book, but most of my reading was fluff and didn’t do a whole lot to challenge my intellect or my world perspective.
It took college and adulthood for me to finally realize that reading of all kinds is good and important, but eventually, what we choose to read matters.
As an English teacher I’m often thrilled when I see my students excitedly and eagerly reading anything. As a mom, I have no issue with my kids reading graphic novel after graphic novel. There are times I just need to read something for fun or inspiration and despite my husband’s claims to the contrary, I am capable of selecting light hearted books. But at the end of the day, if all we are ever reading is “fluff,” if we are never reading to enrich our knowledge and understanding of the world around us, we are not achieving our full potential as literate global citizens.
Not long ago, several news outlets published articles about George W. Bush’s push for pandemic preparedness while he was president. He had been handed the yet-to-be published book The Great Influenza and devoured it. The book shook the president awake. He looked at historical patterns, did the math, and realized that sometime in the future the United States was headed for another catastrophic health emergency. He didn’t know when. He didn’t know how severe it was going to be. He didn’t even know if it would happen during his presidency. He just knew that the United States wasn’t ready and it was his job as president to put the country on the path towards preparation. It didn’t matter that he was also fighting a global war on terror or that the United States was still recovering from terrorist attacks that had changed our way of life; one book full of years of careful research had changed the trajectory of this particular sector of his domestic policy. On his watch, the United States was going to prepare for the worst case scenario.
What we read matters.
The 43rd president of the United States had learned from one of the best. His mother, the late Barbara Bush, decided on her First Lady project long before she ever became the First Lady. She truly believed that the way to fix many of the world’s problems (poverty, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, etc.) was expanding literacy, particularly in adults who never had the chance to beat the statistics. She believed that the ability to read and read well, regardless of the age of the student, is transformative. She had seen the power of reading in her own family and she wanted to see it change the lives of entire families as one generation would pass on their reading legacy to the next generation. She counted this as one of her greatest life achievements, next to being the matriarch of the extensive Bush clan.
She knew that reading matters.
When I was young I read for entertainment, and while that is still often true, it is so much more than that now. I read to learn. I read to challenge my world perspective. I read to understand the experiences of those unlike myself.
Reading opens up our world and helps reinforce the idea that we don’t know it all, and that it’s ok that we don’t know everything. When we read a variety of perspectives or books that challenge long-held ideas and force us to defend or even adjust our world-view, we grow as individuals and as citizens. We learn that answers are not easy and the world is complicated and even the smartest people don’t have all of the answers and sometimes get it wrong.
Maybe that is why so many people are struggling with the uncertainty of COVID-19. When the scientific narrative changes because of the increase in knowledge, many have decided that must mean that the scientific community, which is very publically demonstrating the practice of trial, error, and correction, must not be trustworthy because the narrative changes as the experts learn more. But that fixed mindset demonstrates an unwillingness to admit honest ignorance. Those who have stepped forward as untrusting skeptics appear to have stopped challenging themselves to explore the unknown. Or maybe they never started. Instead of deep diving into the unknown by spending several hours reading about it in detail, they accepted small sound bites that make the complicated far too simple and don’t leave room for nuance or complexity. It shows great strength to admit lack of knowledge and seek to learn more. It shows great weakness to celebrate our own ignorance and refuse to admit that we don’t know everything and we need ask questions.
We like to be comfortable. We don’t like to be told that maybe what we have always thought might be wrong and we want the answers to our questions to be simple. The problem is that humans aren’t simple and often the things we love need to be viewed through a new lens. I love the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but to read it and teach it by itself allows people to see racism as a problem of the past. If I had stopped my reading about our past and present when I was a sophomore in high school, I would have been one of the thousands who were shocked that the murder of Amaud Arbery could happen in America in 2020. But I haven’t just read Mockingbird. I’ve also read Just Mercy and Between the World and Me and The Hate U Give and so many other books that shine a different lens on race in America in the 21st century. I knew that he was just one of so many others who didn’t get their murders highlighted on the nightly news. I was sad and angry and mournful for the state our country is still in, but unfortunately, I was not shocked.
Because what we read matters.
I’m not arguing that we take away the murder mystery paperbacks and graphic novels and delightfully silly romances that line our bookshelves and keep many a writer employed. But I am challenging us to perhaps spend this time considering how we can push ourselves to know more. What kind of world do we want to live in? What do we want the world to look like post-COVID-19? What do we want to look like post-COVID-19?
And then start reading to find the answers.