Reading as Rebellion

How the Simple Act of Reading Can Be the Ultimate Form of Rebellion and Revolution

Meghan Hollis
Jun 20 · 8 min read
Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

There are two types of people in society: those who read and those who do not read. Those who read can be further broken down into a few categories: those who read a lot, read challenging books, and read books across a wide array of genres; those who read a lot in one or a limited number of genres; those who read to learn; those who read for enjoyment; those who read when they are on vacation; those who read occasionally; those who read because they have to; those who read to improve themselves; those who read to improve others. The list could go on and on, and the categories are not mutually exclusive. Ultimately, reading can become entertainment as we transition into adulthood. But when we shift the focus of our reading from entertainment to something bigger, it can become an act of rebellion and revolution.

Expanding Your Knowledge

Reading to expand knowledge is best done in an exploratory manner. Instead of trying to read all of the books you can on one topic and then moving on to the next topic, this reader is best served by switching topics with each new book that they pick up. The key here is to then find connections between these books. You would not think that many of these different types of books would have connections, but they will.

Reading becomes revolutionary when we expand our knowledge beyond what we are taught in school. Whether that is in our K-12 education or includes our college education, we are expanding beyond the reading material chosen for institutionalized education that teaches to tests and standardized exams. We are challenging the status quo through this form of reading, and that is revolutionary. In short, this form of reading teaches us to question the world around us and to find connections that we otherwise might not see.

Expanding Empathy

The expanded capacity for empathy that results from reading comes from multiple sources. You are viewing the world through the lenses of a variety of authors and through reading on a variety of topics. You are slowing down and taking the time to think about the world when you read a book. This is particularly true in instances where people give themselves the time to truly read a book and think about it rather than rushing to the book’s conclusion (as we sometimes feel the need to do). We can put ourselves in the shoes of the various characters. We can learn to better appreciate differences of opinion.

This can become particularly revolutionary when you force yourself to read books written from opposing viewpoints. I will use American politics as an example here. Choosing to read books written about current events and politics is important. Choosing to read books in this genre from authors with varying perspectives and positions is revolutionary. The choice to read a book by or about Bernie Sanders and his political philosophy followed by a book by or about John McCain, and then including books by or about such political figures as Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, George Bush, Bill and/or Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B Johnson, John F Kennedy, and on and on, will expose you to wildly different perspectives.

This exposure to different political perspectives and experiences will not only increase your ability to empathize with those who have different political views from yourself, but it will also allow you to better converse without conflict with those who have different views. In current society, that is truly a revolutionary act.

The Search for Truth

Our reading can become a search for truth. For example, we can take the events of the Vietnam War that we are taught in school or that we saw on the news at face value. We can trust that what we have learned and observed is all there is to the story. The alternative is to read books that expose us to the different potential truths of the Vietnam War. We can read books written about the history of the Vietnam War. We can read books that are written by reporterswho covered the Vietnam War. We can read histories of Vietnam in general. We can read about Vietnamese culture. We can read about the experiences of military servicemembers in the Vietnam War. We can read the various works of fiction written from a variety of perspectives during that era. We can read about campus protests and the various Vietnam War protest activities that occurred. As we read these different sources of information, we start to see that there was much more to the Vietnam War than we observed on the nightly news, read about in the newspapers, or learned about in a high school or college history class.

This form of reading can become an act of rebellion when we use it to question what we are taught and to question the status quo. Reading as a search for truth is a truly rebellious act. Again, we are gathering information from a variety of perspectives to better inform our viewpoints and what we see as “truth.”

Learning to Question the Status Quo

Sometimes I pick up a book to read, and the act of reading that book causes me to question my existing assumptions about and perceptions of the world around me. An example of this was my re-reading of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own recently (see here for my discussion of this experience). Other examples include my recent readings: Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas, Reporter by Seymour Hersch, and a re-read of Animal Farm by George Orwell (thoughts here, and make sure you check out the response where a reader mansplains the book to a woman with a Ph.D. who has studied English literature fairly extensively while ignoring the point of the entire essay — a great lesson for me on clarity of purpose in my writing). When reading challenges our existing positionality, our existing viewpoints, and our existing paradigms, it is truly rebellious.

Sometimes the act of reading can cause us to question the status quo. Reading How to Find Love in a Bookshop caused me to question my career choices over the last decade. Reading Dear America caused me to consider learning more about the experiences of the various immigrant populations who have entered the United States in recent decades. I am currently reading books by Elie Wiesel, and have recently read books on immigration, and The Tattooist of Auschwitz caused me to question the meaning of homelessness and consider what it means to have a “home.” The act of reading can help us in questioning our assumptions about the world around us and allows us to learn more about our fellow human beings and their experiences.

The Ultimate Pain of Knowledge and Understanding

Read a book about a child or teenager surviving the Holocaust together with a book about the experiences of an undocumented immigrant, and you might start to look at current stories in the news about the treatment of child immigrants in a different light. We have questioned how Europeans allowed the “Final Solution” to happen, but we are starting to see similar actions play out across the globe. What are we doing to stop these events in our own time?

Ultimately, education and knowledge can bring great joy, but they can also bring great sorrow and pain. As you open your eyes to new things around you, and as you expand your capacity for empathy, the range of emotions that you experience in response to events in the world and things you read increases exponentially. This can bring discomfort as you learn to cope with the knowledge you have discovered. This was the case for me when I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye recently.

I encourage rebellious and revolutionary reading. It will make you a better person. Considering the viewpoints and experiences of others is an important aspect of cultivating our humanity. One of the best ways to truly experience the world through another’s eyes is to read a book written from their perspective. From the challenges of Harry Potter’s childhood and coming of age to the journeys of hobbits. From the life of a Jewish reporter in America to the life of an undocumented Filipino immigrant who became an American reporter. From the homelessness experienced by victims of the Holocaust to homelessness experienced by immigrants to homelessness experienced by bullying and isolation to homelessness experienced by not having a place to live. Exposure to a variety of experiences and viewpoints increases our empathy, cultivates a search for truth, and forces us to question the status quo in society as well as our own paradigms. These acts are truly rebellious and revolutionary.

Some Revolutionary Reads

· Night, Dawn, and Day by Elie Wiesel

· The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

· Any book by Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, or George Orwell

· Ulysses by James Joyce or In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust — the books they say you will never finish, finishing them is revolutionary and rebellious

· Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas

· The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

· Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour Hersch

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Meghan Hollis

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Meghan is a recovering academic and unemployed writer trying to make it without a “real job” (as her parents call it). She loves to travel and write about it.

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