Flashback: The case for reading

Editor's note: This story is the 12th entry in a series called Flashback, which The Chronicle will be running online weekly through the end of the summer. We welcome readers' input about old stories they would like to see featured. This article recounts an opinion piece, not a news story.

When was the last time you picked up a book?

To celebrate National Book Lovers day August 9, The Chronicle looks back at an opinion piece by Ellie Schaak, published five years ago, which makes a case for the importance of reading. Schaak opens “Reading, period” by reminding us of the kids who can never put books down. 

“Remember that girl in elementary school who always had her head in a book? Maybe she would occasionally miss lunch, and you wondered where she would go. You found out one day when you needed to return a book to the library after you ate,” Schaak wrote.

She paints a picture of this “nice-girl-book-lover” who is not the “most socially aware” to illustrate how we attribute specific qualities to the girl who reads books. 

“Remember that? Remember how she was always so absorbed that hardly anything could bring her away from her story—but if you did catch her attention, she’d look up from the page and meet your eye with a half-smile?" Schaak questioned.

Even when we don't know the girl, we assume that she is kind but awkward because of the story we create to explain her bookish behavior.

It is the “capacity to make up stories” about other people that compels us to act morally, Schaak explains. 

"When we tell and hear stories about others, we discover an impulse to seek to understand their behavior,” she wrote. 

Schaak points to the work of Lasana Harris, a Duke neuroscience professor, for demonstrating the neurological roots of ethical behavior.

Reading books allows us to practice skills like empathy that help us understand others.

Schaak recounts one spring break when she disconnected from the digital world. She noted that the absence of her phone and laptop gave her more time to read, and lamented the hours she had previously lost to Facebook and Reddit.  

"Over break, it became clear what I lost by reading less," Schaak, then a sophomore, wrote. "I love getting to know—and growing to become—the characters in a book. I love all that I learn by reading books: not only brand new facts and information but also entire new perspectives. I love shutting out my old world and entering a new one."

The value of that reading stretched beyond her.

“But lately I’ve been thinking about how I am not the only one who loses out. Society loses something, too. Stories are so important to the way that we relate to each other socially,” she wrote. “They teach us to reconsider preconceptions and try on new perspectives. They teach us to imagine the stories behind the behavior we see in the world. They teach us compassion.”


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