I was raised by books.
Most parenting done in my life was done between the pages of novels. Almost all of the life lessons, the kindness, and the idealism I still hold onto, I learned in those early days when books were my best friends.
I always thirsted for information, even from an early age. My mom reminds me of how I used to point out everything from road signs to restaurant menus and ask her what they said — I was fascinated by the symbols that formed our language. If I could just understand the symbols, I’d unlock the secrets to the world around me, I was sure.
Once I learned to read, I never stopped. Not even to this day. I try to read at least twenty to thirty books a year and I’ve been fairly successful for the past seven years I’ve tracked my reading faithfully.
The reason I became a writer is because I love books so much. Whether it was my favorite characters teaching me how to be a good friend or a fantasy book that allowed me to escape my own dire circumstances— books have always been there to teach me whatever I need in life.
One of the saddest statistics I’ve ever heard in my life is this: one-third of high school graduates never read another book in their life. Although that statistic has since been disproven, it doesn’t strike me as all that far off the mark.
But if you’re on Medium, though, chances are you’re into words. When was the last time you really sat down and read a novel, one that transported you to another world?
Think about how special that feeling is. Hold onto it as you read this article.
Because novels are magic. And I want you to know why I think they’re necessary.
1. Novels Teach Us Empathy
I suppose it was a combination of my upbringing and watching the so-called “popular girls” reign in middle school — but I was quite a sociopathic child.
I remember vividly telling one of my friends how I got power over people: I’d befriend them, learn their deepest secrets, and then threaten to use them against them.
It sounds so terrible when I write it now, but I was like 8 — I understood nothing of morality and only wanted friendly attention. I don’t think I ever actually went through with this insane act, only thought about it deeply before tossing it to the side, but it sounded very interesting to say out loud.
But when I was shoved between the covers of books, I felt deeply for those fellow humans, faux as they may be. They were more real to me than those people who surrounded me, not understanding me or ever really looking deeply into who I am.
Specifically, I experienced my very first death in fiction. I was eleven or twelve when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out. I stayed up all night reading it one night, deeply pulled into this story I’d been following for four straight books. It was the longest series I’d ever read at that point and I was very invested in each of the characters.
When Cedric Diggory died, my heart dropped out of my stomach. I keeled over my nightstand, lit by the glow my domed lamp, like someone had shot me. I spent the next hour crying, unable to deal with what the book had thrown at me. I kept seeing it in my mind, over and over — Cedric Diggory dying for no purpose other than trying to be a good sport.
That experience, as intense as it was, taught me something. It prepared me for the moment when I would lose someone, perhaps in less dire circumstances. It allowed me to explore that kind of empathy without actually experiencing real-world pain.
From that, I’ve grown. So many books have given me this same experience, and I’ve learned to cherish it. My empathy has intensified from reading novels and though the world seems to be a little more fragile and hard to experience with that depth of empathy, I really wouldn’t have it any other way.
2. Novels Show Us Danger While Keeping Us Safe
My dad was always an adrenaline junkie — dragging us around to various theme parks every summer and forcing my sister and I’s butts into the seats of the country’s scariest roller coasters. It was never my thing, even if I always finished the ride with a smile plastered on my face. I’ve never been one for such intense physical thrills and as I’ve grown older, the adrenaline does more harm than good.
But one thing that sticking my head between the pages of books has shown me is — you don’t have to be in danger to feel those same thrills. When you’re deeply invested in a novel and its characters and their world, any threat to that will set your heart hammering.
You’ll follow along on heart-wrenching journey fraught with assassins and evil caretakers, where danger lurks around every corner but is always narrowly averted.
Best of all, novels help us to experience things that we never could’ve on our planet or in our present reality. Like in Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward, where we are put into the driver’s seat of dogfighting spaceships — those thrills couldn’t even compare to the ones I had, my real body in real danger. Or like in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, we’re thrown in the real and dangerous world of art theft. It’s exciting to enter these worlds, but I think most of us would stay in our own little bubbles, given the real-life chance.
That’s what makes reading so fun — it allows you to have experiences that you never would otherwise.
Novels are vehicles of transportation. While your body is safe and sound, your might is lifted off into other realms that are full to the bursting with new and exciting adventures. And if the heart-pounding excitement gets to be too much, well, all you have to do is just close the book.
But really, don’t you want to find out what happens next?
3. Novels are Revolutionary
The first time I got an inkling that my home-life wasn’t right was when I read a beautiful and incredibly painful book called Fig Pudding. The novel, written for middle graders, is the story of a large family as they go through their own trials and tribulations.
For the first time in my life, I saw parenting modeled for me in the way that I craved so deeply. When one of the main characters passes away, the whole family rallies in a tribute to the child.
I remember feeling like I had finally found a reason. The reason I was so angry and angsty, despite being barely ten years old. It was because I wanted a family, one exactly like the one I’d read about.
There have been so many times in my life that I have been struck — physically struck — by the words in a book. Whether they were words I needed to hear uttered to me in my own time of need or just the introduction of new and possibly outrageous ideas, novels have always opened my eyes wider and given me a deeper perspective on life.
Novels are revolutionary, literally. If you don’t believe me, I urge you to pick up Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a novel about an anarchist stuck on a capitalistic world.
I believe that books have this power because they encapsulate so many thoughts, loves, dreams, hopes, and failures all into one story. The best stories don’t just pull you away from reality — they also change the way that you look at reality in its widest scope.
The Power of the Novel
Reading a book is like a nice warm cup of tea for your mind. It allows you to take a load off and relax but also to be fully in the moment, while your eyes are scanning across the page. There is something so special about books: the way they crinkle as you flip through them, the easy way the corners flip down with wear, the musty smell of their insides.
Inhale that pure golden magic straight into your soul. That’s the power of a novel.