How Reading Edifies the Heart, Mind & Soul.
For me, reading began as a perfunctory act.
I learned how to do it the same way I learned how to tie my shoes—it was simply something that I had to do. There was little love involved. I haven’t clue one what schools are like in Korea now, but back then, reading was a skill to be learned, not a passion to be cultivated.
Thankfully, this changed in the second grade. I was wandering aimlessly through the school library in an attempt to just be alone and unbothered in quiet solitude when I happened upon a copy of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. I liked the picture on the cover and wanted to try and draw it and eventually started reading the book as well.
I was happily surprised at what happened next: I was fascinated.
I learned for the first time I wasn’t the only person in the world to anthropomorphize animals and was thrilled to read something that gave a voice to creatures that everyone else around me seemed to take for granted.
A flood-gate was opened as I wondered what else was between the covers of all the books that I had previously not given a second glance. I was on fire. After Black Beauty came Watership Down and Mrs. Frisby & the Rats of Nimh. Charlotte’s Web was followed by The Cricket in Times Square and my present-day desire to have a self-sustaining life while being at one with the environment was ignited upon reading Island of the Blue Dolphins. I read James and the Giant Peach so many times the pages eventually came loose from the spine and I still have my copy of Nancy Drew: The Clue of the Broken Locket.
At the same time, I became enthralled by comic books. I would lose myself in the epic battles, the tragic love stories, the triumphs, the tribulations; the eternal fight between good and evil was fantastically wrought by Chris Claremont’s Classic X-Men series and will forever remain in my heart.
As I grew older I discovered other books, other authors. I fell cuckoo-bananas in love with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and discovered the harsh beauty of Harper Lee and Alice Walker. My taste in comics evolved as well as I began reading the works of David Mack, the Hernandez brothers and Neil Gaiman.
Ah, Neil Gaiman. Now there’s a writer. This man does it all: comic books, short story collections, poetry, novels, children’s books, screenplays. His passion for books and stories and the loving respect he has for the power they possess gives me hope for humanity.
I have caught flak from people throughout my life because of my reading habits, especially my habit of reading the same title over and over again. I have been told it’s dumb (yes, dumb); I have been told it’s a waste of time; I have been told that it is a pointless endeavor simply used to escape from the realities of life.
My rebuttal to those statements is a simple one: reading is for the edification of one’s heart, mind and soul.
Reading enriches our viewpoint, our outlook on life, enabling us to ponder and wonder over things that we may never have pondered or wondered over before. Reading can provide insight and guidance for situations that we may otherwise not be equipped to handle: finding out at the age of 18 that I had a long-lost sister was a conversation that my mother and I had an easier time with since we were both huge Amy Tan fans. Yes, reading is an escape—into a training room. It beefs us up, helps prepare us for all kinds of things life may throw at us at any given moment. It strengthens our ability to empathize and sympathize.
Rereading is equally important. People and their opinions change as time wears on and to go back and read something like To Kill a Mockingbird at the age of 28 after reading it last at the age of 14 is an incredibly cathartic experience. Other times, rereading the same book can serve as a good reminder that a person is still in touch with their inner child when they derive the same joy from revisiting a childhood favorite that they had upon first discovering the tale; this experience can also be enormously satisfying.
More than ever there is talk about living healthy, eating healthy, exercising regularly. Hear me now, people: this goes for the intangible parts as well. Too many of us are mentally, emotionally and ultimately spiritually malnourished. The imagination is stagnating, mired in the muck of instant-gratification reality TV and endless newsfeeds. Lift weights, jog, practice yoga, juice for a week—but work that brain muscle, too.
Last October, Neil Gaiman gave an excellent lecture about the importance of reading, libraries and day-dreaming that can (ahem, should) be read here. It’s long; it’s beautiful; and, if you’re a passionate reader like myself, it can move you to tears.
And, hey, while we’re on the subject—
Without thinking about it too hard and agonizing over the many titles to choose from, here is my top 15 reading list in no particular order that have helped shape my own heart, mind and soul over the years:
1) A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
2) The Temple of Gold by William Goldman
3) The Color Purple by Alice Walker
4) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
5) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
6) Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz
7) Les Misérables (unabridged) by Victor Hugo
8) Psshhh, all Kurt Vonnegut
9) Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
10) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
11) The entire Space Odyssey series by Arthur C. Clarke
12) The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
13) The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
14) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
15) Lord of the Flies by William Golding
What are your favorite books and how did you come to your love of reading?
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: elephant journal archives