In our social media-obsessed world, there seems to be less and less time for reading books. Gone are the days when kids would plead with their parents at bedtime for “just one more story,” and when they would hide out under the covers with a flashlight and a book, hoping not to get caught reading when they ought to have been sleeping. They’re more likely to get stuck on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter and stay up until the wee hours looking at a screen.
So why is reading so important? There are a number of reasons. First, reading puts our lives in the context of a global community and reminds us that we are not at the center of everything. It describes different people and cultures, provides stories of others’ exploits, and shows how different individuals or societies react differently to the same problem or issue.
Second, books are a virtual time machine. Through novels we can travel to any point in history and observe the goings on. We can follow our hero through the royal courts of Renaissance England; we can watch the “shot heard ‘round the world,” the event that sparked the American Revolution; we can listen to Martin Luther King Jr. give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. And if you’re reading science fiction, you can literally travel anywhere or anywhen, living on a planet dreamed up in the author’s imagination. Reading enriches us in ways we may not discover until many years later.
Third, reading helps us define our morals and values. As we grow and develop, we become more independent. We look for friends with whom we share interests but who also complement us. We search for who we are and what we stand for. By the time we reach college, we are expected to take a position on such things as religion, politics, and war and determine the morality associated with each of them. We can find clues to what we believe in the stories told by others, whether they be fictional, such as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Jane Eyre, or real-life, such as the current events found in the daily newspaper. By exposing us to a wide variety of thoughts, ideas, and opinions, reading helps us find the path we need to define who we are and what we stand for.
Fourth, reading is a vital part of our education. An historical novel set in a time period about which we know little, or one that deals with an important historical figure, can teach us things about our past that we didn’t know; it helps us put our lives and the events around us in their proper perspective. When we read, we constantly absorb new information, and that knowledge may serve us well in whatever future we create for ourselves.
Those of us of a certain age were taught that reading and pleasure go hand in hand; unfortunately for most of us, endless book reports, droning lectures, and year after year of standardized reading comprehension exams have diminished the excitement we once had. Many of the younger generations, who were brought up on computers and smartphones, were never even exposed to that wonderful experience. All of us, though, can fulfill the promise of books by making a concerted effort to immerse ourselves in reading for pleasure, either again or for the first time. Dr. Seuss, the famous children’s writer, probably put the value of reading best: “The more you read the more things you know. The more that you learn the more places you’ll go.”