Have you ever read a book that was so good you just couldn’t put it down? This used to happen to me all the time when I was young. I was a voracious reader, and so were many of my classmates.
My parents used to joke that I ate books for breakfast. My friends and I would compete to see who could read the most novels per week, quizzing each other and making up skits about our favorite characters. Elementary school was like being part of a built-in book club. But then, around the end of eighth grade, something changed; there was a downward shift in the popularity of reading. No one had the time. We were teenagers. We had cell phones. We could play games on apps and post photos on Instagram and text, text, text.
In high school, I felt a certain hollowness creep up inside me when I realized that I'd stopped carrying around a novel everywhere I went. No one wanted to talk about books anymore. And the worst part was that I knew something very wrong was happening, but I couldn't put my finger on what.
I recently decided to do some research on this subject, and what I found shocked and astounded me. Reading for pleasure is an activity that is not only declining with age, but dwindling completely across the board. According to an article written by Alison Flood for The Guardian, “The number of American children who say they love reading books for fun has dropped almost 10 percent in the last four years” That's a huge decrease for such a short period of time.
It's no secret that this is closely related to increased use of technology like cell phones, laptops and iPads. David Benby writes for The New Yorker that, for today’s teenagers, when compared to technology, “Reading a book is a weak, petulant claimant on their time. Reading frustrates their smartphone sense of being everywhere at once. Suddenly, they are stuck on that page, anchored, moored, and many are glum about it…Reading anything serious has become a chore, like doing the laundry.”
The draw of technology, of constant connection, eats away at the wonders of books and the magic of fictional worlds. Today’s youth want nothing more than around-the-clock social stimulation, which we can only get from social media, television and texted conversation.
You might be wondering at this point, why should we be so concerned? Some might argue that a love of books is a matter of personal preference, just like some people prefer math or science over the humanities. Many associate reading only with English or history, and this way of thinking needs to stop. Not only does reading have countless benefits on a person's health and intellectual growth, it provides us with empathy, a better capacity to understand the world around us and the people in it.
When you read from the perspective of a certain character, you become one with that person. You feel their experiences as if they were your own. You start to imagine their innermost thoughts and you understand why they act the way they do because you have the unique experience of being inside their head, an experience you can't get from watching TV or movies.
In life, you will meet people who are very different from yourself, and you may be confused because the way they look or act is hard for you to understand. But protagonists in literature come from all different backgrounds.
As a reader, you gain the ability to empathize with others, to understand the struggles, thoughts and experiences of people who are different from what you are used to, which is absolutely necessary for building a habit of tolerance, acceptance and understanding between people of varying cultures or religious, social and economic backgrounds.
Through reading, I have been able to view the inner struggles of a patient in a mental institution, to experience the catastrophes of war from the eyes of a soldier on the front lines and to feel what it was like to be both a slave and a slave owner in pre-Civil War Louisiana, to name only a few.
These are eye-opening experiences from past and present that I would never be able to understand without seeing them through the eyes of a book character. Through reading, the mind can travel, it can imagine and, most importantly, it can understand. You can place yourself in someone else’s life, if only for a few, short hours, and resurface into reality with an enlightened understanding of the trials and variety of human experience.
So I urge you all to pick up a book and start reading. It doesn't matter what the book is; whatever catches your interest. Who knows? You might actually enjoy it. And you'll come away from the experience with a better understanding of the fact that we are all human beings sharing this planet, all just people living our lives and working to accept each other along the way.
In the words of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's famous novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."