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Why is reading relevant?

Through the mind of Scout Finch, Harper Lee wrote: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

For ages, well-recognized voices (of not just authors!) have spoken up for reading. Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BC) is cited as the speaker of: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Two millenia later, Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography: “My alma mater was books, a good library.” Undeniably, to humans born across all real and imagined borders, reading has been not only an action, but a way of living.

In and of itself, leisure reading remains an activity — and lifestyle —  easily accessible and simple. Literature has existed nearly as long as humanity itself, and people of nearly all ages and abilities can participate in its consumption. In American schools, especially at the primary level, it’s an encouraged pastime. Yet I’ve heard many friends say “I stopped reading in high school” or “I’ve outgrown my reading phase.”

Why does reading occur in phases? Why, starting in secondary curriculums, do STEM and liberal arts focuses gradually grow more mutually exclusive? Why do I encounter so many people who treat literature as an unnecessary luxury unhelpful to one’s life? This is my perhaps oft-heard yet passionate case for why reading is relevant.

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I’m not saying ditch Bio and major in English. Instead, I hope to explain how reading can be part of your life no matter what area of study or path you choose. Reading can improve your knowledge and efficiency no matter your discipline. For example, a 2010 study surveying health sciences students found these positive attitudes: “Most felt that leisure reading had helped in their development as health professionals and increased their empathy. They listed many benefits of reading, such as improved understanding of minority groups, reduced stress, and improved thinking and communication skills.”

While reading can improve skills fundamental to our social contributions, on a deeper level, reading can provide us with the reasons as to why we contribute. Our reading and education should not only “produce knowledge,” but also define the way we live. Philip Metres, Ph.D., poet, professor, (and father to my high school bestie), shared these lines at JCU’s Young Writers Workshop this past summer:

Literature and Creative Writing are part of what universities call the “liberal arts.” The origin of the term liberal arts comes from ancient Rome. There, “slaves were entitled to study any subject so long as it was dubbed ‘practical.’ Slaves [could] take math…science and engineering, but [liberal arts] subjects like history, philosophy, and rhetoric were forbidden. These arts of persuasion were reserved only for the liber, the ‘free.’ Why? Because the ancient Romans didn't want to arm slaves with the tools of education that would allow them to say, ‘We should be free.’”

Of course, freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever the hell we want. It’s the state of being able to choose and shape our individual and shared futures. Toni Morrison once wrote that “the function of freedom is to free somebody else. You are moving toward self-fulfillment, and the consequences of that fulfillment should be to discover that there is something just as important as you are.” A… liberal arts education not only seeks to produce knowledge, it seeks to change the world, acting in solidarity with the excluded, the oppressed.

Freedom — libertas — flows as a common thread through discussion of the liberal arts and literature. In the most practical sense, as Toni Morrison also said, “Books are a form of political action.” Frederick Douglas, social reformer and abolitionist, reflected, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Yet also in a metaphorical sense, Ralph Waldo Emerson, ever the Romantic, wrote: “Some books leave us free and some books make us free.” When we are not literally being released from shackles, nor unbound from stations in society, what are we being freed from? The answer, of course, is nuanced, but a simplistic one could be “time.”

Carl Sagan, astronomer, declared in his Cosmos series: “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs.” Through stories shared and read, we enable each other to exist outside the constraints of time. When we read, we immortalize. The function of reading, then, “is to free somebody else.”

Books don’t promise to reveal what it means to be human, nor the meaning of life. But reading brings us a step closer to freedom from ourselves, from our daily walks as citizens, from the thoughts of our own time. As Albert Einstein said, “Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.”

Reading of course, is never just about reading itself. I am reminded constantly during my current read of John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature that reading, literature, and the liberal arts are closely tied to the foundations of society. Without reading, we would not have censorship and the fights against it, revolutions, the rise, fall, and identities of empires. Our world’s religions are founded on books, epistles, poetry, and scripture. Our nations and governments are grounded on our continuous reiteration and interpretation of the written word.

So today, in a highly polarized climate, is it not crucial to engage with these “citizens of distant epochs” in addition to contemporary works? To examine a fundamentally human desire for finding freedom through reading? In our current, highly mechanized, tech-reliant society, productivity and “being with the times” is often valued as more practical than the arts of persuasion, empathy, and self-fulfillment. While it’s a bit conspicuous to call reading itself a lifestyle, our society and academia today portray it as simply an activity, nothing more, which could not be further from the truth.

Case closed. Go find a book. Let’s continue to “shape our individual and shared futures.” I’ll leave you with this line by my favorite author Annie Dillard, who may easily have been writing about Scout Finch as well: “she reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.”

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