HUGHES: Reading makes us better people


Photo by Maryam Tunio

I grew up surrounded by books. When I think of my childhood, I remember reading. Every milestone in my life can be marked by the book I belonged to at the time. I don’t think this is an accident; I think books find us when we need them.

Reading for me has always offered a chance for transformation. I feel changed every time I finish a book. The characters stay with me long after I’ve finished their stories. This is kind of a cliche among readers. Ask anyone who packs at least three books for short train rides or spends their days off in used book stores; they’ll tell you how important those stories have been to them.

Somebody told me once that they didn’t read because they’d rather spend their time living life than reading about it. It’s tricky to tell somebody to read because nobody wants to be told how to spend their time, particularly their free time, but you don’t have to abandon life in order to read. If anything, I think reading provides us the tools to live life more mindfully and with a greater sense of urgency and passion.

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who compared reading with meditation. We are introspective beings. We think about things. We want to understand. Maya Angelou famously said, “If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading.”

But it’s more than reading to understand ourselves, it’s reading to understand everyone else. Most of us are not solipsists, so our own personal dramas come from other people and our inability to empathize with them. The ability to perceive the world through experiences other than our own is foundational not only to academia, but also to surviving as a human being. Reading teaches empathy, it teaches critical thinking, it teaches application, but more than all that, it’s a good time.

The best book I’ve ever read was “It” by Stephen King. The writing was beautiful, like everything by King, but the story itself was ubiquitous. I mean that both in that I saw the story everywhere, that it stayed with me and affected me, but also in that it was a story about everything. “It” is a book about life and death, about being young and about growing old, about being afraid, about friendship, about love. Once I finished it, I had to take a day to mourn the story, mourn the characters and mourn the way the book made me feel as I was reading it.

I think I became a better person by reading that book, like I think I grow wiser, more compassionate, more forgiving after every book I finish.

My personal experiences with literature have made me a sort of library evangelist. So long as there are people reading, there will be people thinking and loving and growing, and that to me is a remarkable comfort.