Articles, Blog

Reading: Experience By Proxy

reading experience by proxy

From the instant a toddler recognizes its first letter, we bombard the poor child – and its parents – with the importance of reading. Yet for every child that takes to reading readily and early, there is one that can’t sit still during a bedtime story and rather plays with toys instead of staring at squiggly symbols in a row.

Once these kids grow an appetite to venture into the world of comics, they are told to put down that ‘trash’ and read ‘proper books’. To drive that point home, their school system will force them for years to read classic literature far beyond their interest and comprehension.

Which is a terrible shame. Not on those youngsters, but for them. Because if their repulsion of reading persists, they miss out on far more than a handful of books.

Force-feeding breeds repulsion

Failing to see why reading literature should matter, many adolescents give up on reading all together as soon as they leave school. They hate the books they were forced to read, weren’t permitted to read the ‘trashy’ books they did enjoy, so why bother?

Who can blame them? I certainly have no right, since I was one of them for the longest time.

After I left secondary school with 40+ works of literature under my belt, only a handful of which had been marginally interesting to me, I had lost all appetite for fiction. Small wonder, since the only fiction I had been permitted came from the hand of middle-aged men writing about the problems of their age and generation. None of it had any bearing on me – at least, not at that time in my life.

I still read voraciously, thought, but about history, wars, myths, cultures and religions, psychology… the list goes ever on. To this day, more than half my book collection consists of non-fiction books.

Internet wasn’t so well developed yet, but otherwise I’m sure I would have done what most young people do these days: read online. Articles, ezines, blog posts, stories posted on websites and in social media communities. Most of it is not ‘proper books’ and ‘proper newspapers’, but they read. And watch: the time the TV was just people is long gone. Some of today’s series and movies are genuine art in the literary sense. They are just not printed, but filmed.

Reading with a new eye

In time, we change. For some their repulsion turned to hatred, but fortunately it’s not uncommon for people who broke up with books after school to fall back in love with reading after a few years.  And as an added bonus, their additional life experience breeds a new appreciation of the books they simply couldn’t understand as a teen.

My own reading increased dramatically when I reached my thirties. With every novel I read, I found something to relate to. Characters made choices I couldn’t fathom as a teenager, but which made perfect sense to me now, even if I didn’t agree with them. I recognized plot devices that I had dissected while watching countless movies before, and understood the foreshadowing of events because I was now more familiar with the patterns of nature and history – both of which tend to repeat themselves.

Now these books make sense, and now it is easier to see what makes their stories and themes perennial.

But I also encountered events, emotions and choices that were new to me. Experiences I had never gone through myself – something to be thankful for in many cases – but which became a part of me because I read about them. Everything I had learned about different people and their behaviour from non-fiction books came to life on the pages of the novels I read, helping me to truly understand the world behind the facts.

This effect isn’t personal; it’s universal. Reading breeds an understanding of people and things that extends far beyond ourselves.

Substitute for experience

In the end, that is why reading is important. No one tells us this when we grow up. Other people’s experiences are crammed down our throat before we can appreciate them, but ultimately, reading helps us to better understand the world around us.

Books, fiction and non-fiction, can give us experiences beyond our reach. Not everyone has the opportunity to travel to distant countries, and going back in time isn’t even possible at all. So we read. We read about how the world is, may be, or might have been. We read about ideas we would never have considered ourselves, learning about options we never even knew existed. And through words, we can live terrible events we never have, could, or would want to experience first-hand, but which are very real nonetheless.

Our time and our lives are by necessity limited. Since no one person can make all mistakes and win all successes themselves, we share our experiences. This way others benefit from what we have learned – and we benefit from their lessons in return.

Experience helps us deal with the difficulties in our own lives. By extension, so does reading.

So grab a book – any book – and enjoy!