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The books that change us


July 15, 2015

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I got one of those spammy emails recently from Goodreads. Referring to a book I had on my “completed” list, the subject title was “Did you enjoy Animal Farm?”

I had to laugh.

No, I did not enjoy George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” One does not enjoy reading about horses that end up in the glue factory and swine that rise to power through greed and oppression. The story is not a pretty one.

But I’m so glad I finished “Animal Farm.” And I’m a better person for having read it.

A few years ago, I quit attending book clubs. It seems we never got past the first question: Did you like the book?

To me, that is the wrong question to ask. To enjoy or like a story means to take pleasure from the plot, the characters and the writing. There are only two answers to that question, which makes for a very short and anemic discussion.

If we all just read the books we liked, or the books we enjoyed, we’d be limited to romance and the latest John Grisham. Our bedside tables would look like those revolving carousels in airports, with their endless stream of Nora Ephron and Stephen King.

There are several reasons to read, and pleasure should be at the top of the list. If we don’t love at least some of the books we read, we’ll give up on the art form entirely.

But we should also read for other reasons: to inform, educate and expand our world-view. The best writing, the best of literature, should give us an experience. That can and should involve a wide range of emotions, including sorrow, horror, discomfort, anger and frustration. We should feel as if we’ve traveled down a path and been forever changed.

As P.A. Christensen said, “Those books are good which transform us.”

I think of the books that have stayed with me. They are not always books I’ve liked. They’re books like “Anna Karenina,” “Tess of the D’Ubervilles,” “A Picture of Dorian Gray,” “The Giver” and “Farenheit 451.” They include gritty true-life stories like “Life and Death in Shanghai,” “Unbroken” and “The Hiding Place.”

Of course not all books have to be tragic to give you an experience. Harry Potter gave birth to a whole new generation of readers because it gave them access to a magical world of broomsticks and orphaned wizards. A good book, like life, has both light and shadow.

As recent studies have shown, the power of good books cannot be understated. Literary fiction, which tends to focus more on “psychology of characters and their relationships,” significantly increases empathy in readers, according to an article by Julianne Chiaet in Scientific America. Empathy, as in, the ability to understand what a person is experiencing. We may not live on the streets or in a war-torn country, but when we read good stories, we can more fully understand that world.

Percy Bysshe Shelley figured this out years before when he wrote in "A Defence of Poetry": “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is imagination.”

That imagination is largely lost from our society today as we focus so much on instant gratification of social media: the selfies, the travelogues, the latest and most shocking/upsetting/scintillating news tidbits. We run from one caper to the next, breathless from the pace of staying forever tapped in.

If there is respite, it comes through literature, which allows for a pause from the breakneck speed.

Because of this, as parents we should not only be reading ourselves, but getting good books into the hands of our young people.

It’s why I’m a huge fan of encouraging literature in schools. I never would have picked up books like “Cry the Beloved Country” or “Siddhartha” without a mandate from a teacher. Like any blue-blooded teenager, I didn’t like those books at the time. I moaned my way through “Beowulf” and Shakespeare’ s “Hamlet” with the rest of them.

I’ll never forget sitting on my bed as a high school sophomore, slogging my way through “The Scarlett Letter.” I felt like I was drowning in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s flowery prose.

Then something happened. I cut through the language and saw a story emerge, a tragic and shocking narrative of a woman and a priest and a little baby girl. I turned page after page, no longer reading because of the five-paragraph essay due on Friday. I read because I felt the weight of this story, how it made me think about prejudice and choice and consequence.

I know people who only believe in reading happy stories. I understand that. We live in a dark world. I don’t pick up anything too tragic between the months of January and March, because the Minnesota winters are bleak enough without any help from John Steinbeck and Thomas Hardy.

But if we only read one type of book, or sadly, don’t read at all, then we see the world through a single lens instead of a multi-faceted prism.

That, to me, is more tragic than anything Shakespeare ever wrote.

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