Why Reading Matters

by Brittany Bruner

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Reading has always been an important activity in my home. My family and I read together every Sunday, and before I could read, my parents read me a bedtime story every night. My grandparents gave each grandchild a new book every Christmas, and every summer, my mother dropped me off at the library (because I spent way too long looking for books), and I would come home with a stash of reading material. For my family and me, reading is a way of life.

As I grew older, I was shocked by how many people do not value reading. I have encountered several individuals who have never read a book and some who do not know where the local library is. Additionally, I have heard several people say that reading is a waste of time and they would choose anything over reading a book.

This is startling to me for a number of reasons. Rather than discussing all of these reasons, I would like to focus on two reasons I believe reading is important: (1) reading teaches you to think critically, and (2) reading increases feelings of humanity.

Reading Teaches Critical Thinking

Photo Credit: Dennis' Photography via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Dennis’ Photography via Compfight cc

In an increasingly technological world, many people actively pursue and encourage others to pursue mathematical education. This idea is starting at even earlier ages with the promotion of the STEM education program that focuses on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, which is being implemented in elementary schools. STEM is a great program because it enhances technological fields. Children are taught to think critically about math and science and to solve equations and problems. Many value this type of critical thinking over literary critical thinking because it provides answers and solutions. But critical thinking in reading can be just as helpful as critical thinking in math and science.

Critical thinking in reading is different from critical thinking in math and science because it focuses more on the human aspect of knowledge. When you critically read, you identify what the author is saying and analyze its significance for society. We then, through this literary analysis, construct narratives about society. It is important to construct these narratives with compassion for other humans. In science, we also construct narratives about human nature. If compassionate feelings of humanity are removed from this, it can produce terrible results. For example, in an English class taught by Brigham Young University professor Kristin Matthews, Professor Matthews discussed the use of scientific data as a form of narrative. We perceive data as a constructed narrative. For example, scientific discoveries in the past have been used to construct narratives that people with darker skin are inferior or that people’s intelligences are affected by how thick their skulls are. The raw scientific and technological data used to support these claims created a narrative and a set of beliefs. Thus, the data is interpreted the same way information is interpreted while reading. The fundamental difference in the two is that reading emphasizes human virtues and aids in understanding other individuals while scientific narratives make claims based solely on facts. When data is interpreted, biases can get in the way of the construction of narrative and allow terrible ideas like the two mentioned before to become “scientifically proven” prejudices. Reading literature aims to eliminate these biases by presenting lots of different points of view.

Reading Increases Positive Feelings toward Humanity

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Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc

Another main concern I have about our increasingly technological world is that everything is reduced to numbers, including people. For example, when preparing for job interviews, students are told to quantify their experiences. How much did you increase sales? How many people did you bring to the company? By what percentage did you increase productivity? These are common questions that candidates are told to consider as they write cover letters and prepare for job interviews. Their success is determined by how well they can quantify themselves, But, it is quite difficult to quantify experiences that increased humanity or developed positive feelings toward other individuals.

On a broader scope, in a capitalist society we are concerned with the increase of sales and how much money we are making. Some may brush off this concern, but history shows that a world influenced solely by numbers and without books is a terrible world. Reducing people to numbers removes their humanity. This was shown by the numbering system in concentration and death camps during the Holocaust. This was the lowest form of reducing people to numbers, and it brought about horrific results.

When I visited the Imperial War Museum in London, in the Holocaust exhibit I read a quote by Henrich Heine that states, “Where one burns books, one will, in the end, burn people.” While there was literal book burning during the Nazi reign, this quote implies a lot more about the human race. In my postmodernism English class, we discuss the concept of the Other, or one who is outside your group (which can essentially mean everyone), and we discuss the importance of understanding the Other. Books emphasize learning about Others because they portray many different life experiences. When we read, we can draw a mirage of experiences from many different characters, expanding our understanding of the world and of humanity. Because every person’s experience is vastly different, this understanding can be expanded in both fiction and nonfiction accounts. Therefore, if books represent experiences of the Others, when the books are burned, the concept of the Other is burned, and only one experience and one mindset is adopted (like the mindset of the Nazis). When this happens, disaster strikes.

While we are striving to better the world and to increase the productivity of people through the development of technology, it is important for people to value the experiences of those around them and to understand people on a deeply human level. A focus on numbers and results removes this human aspect. When poet Mark Strand visited Brigham Young University, he was asked about the influence he had as a poet. He said that if our leaders took time to read poetry for an hour a day, our world would be significantly improved.  Reading allows people to think critically, and it also allows people to understand each other better and perhaps treat others with greater human compassion.