Monday, July 11, 2011

Reading, Imagination, and Growth

When it comes to books and reading, I'm all for reading "marshmallow" works at times. You know, lighthearted, escapist books that are a fun romp. They don't pretend to be anything but a fun story. They aren't trying to change the world or be profound. But dang, they're fun to read, and you come away feeling happy after closing the cover.

(A big favorite of mine in this category is the 2010 Whitney winner for Romance, Julie Wright's Cross My Heart.)

I'm also a big proponent of being willing, at times, to pick up something different. That can also mean something hard.

That something could be a book with a view of the world that is different from mine (white, female, Mormon).

Maybe it's reading about a black person's experience (The Bluest Eye).

Or about someone with religious background different than my own (My Name Is Asher Lev)

Or someone living in a different time (A Tale of Two Cities).

Or a different place (The Poisonwood Bible, A Thousand Splendid Suns).

Or about people facing horrific challenges and triumphs (The Hiding Place, Man's Search for Meaning).

Or characters dealing with social issues than I'll never have to face (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Secret Life of Bees, The Help.)

And so on and on and on.

At times I need lighter fare after going through a deep, heart-wrenching story, so no, I don't always read tough books, but I believe that avoiding them altogether would stunt my spiritual and emotional growth.

I'm a big fan of a balanced reading "diet," which includes marshmallows (and brownies and cream puffs) as well as solid portions of vegetables and maybe even a steak now and then.

I've had this topic on my mind for over a year, and in that time, two things have come to my attention that make the point better than I ever could.

The first is a devotional address that Dr. Van Gessel gave at BYU some years back. (In the fashion of It's a small World, he was a colleague of my father, and I've since become friends with his daughter, who has an incredibly honest and funny blog). (Read the full transcript of Dr. Gessel's talk here.)

He says, in part (bolded emphasis is mine):
Can we ever become better until we sense and wish to transcend the insufficiencies of our current life? But how do we gain an awareness of those insufficiencies? Through prayer and repentance, of course, but also through reading. Do we have any hope of becoming more like our Creator if we cannot “modify our natural angle of regard upon all things . . . to see[things] differently”—a vision altered, I would suggest, through reading? If we fail somehow to acquire the skill of entering into unfamiliar worlds anew, how can we avoid being trapped—literally damned—in our current imperfections, and how can we ever begin to imagine the infinities where God dwells and labors?
And then later he has this awesome bit, which should strike a chord specifically for Latter-day Saint readers:
Can we, I wonder, ever be gods and goddesses of our own universes, eternal parents of imperfect beings who will have to go through the mortal travails as each of us will have done, without somehow having an understanding of and even an empathy toward our flawed progeny?

I can't hep but think: reading about other people, experiences, cultures, weaknesses . . . all of that can help me grow and develop and prepare to be a heavenly parent to future spirit children who will experience things different from my mortal experience, who will be flawed in different ways than I was flawed during my mortal probation.

So the more I learn vicariously, through reading, now, the more understanding and compassion I may have in the next life.

Sobering and exciting thoughts.

Along similar lines, I recently watched the commencement address J. K. Rowling gave at Harvard in 2008. Her speech has two main parts: the benefits of failure and the benefits of imagination. The entire speech is worth watching, but for my purposes, focus on the section about the benefit of imagination, from about 11 minutes to 18 minutes.

That's where she talks about how humans are the only creatures on the planet who can mentally put themselves into another place and position, into another person's life . . . often through reading . . . and how that fact brings us power to do good: the power of human empathy. Imagination and reading are some of the most powerful ways to find such empathy. And she mentions those who close their minds, refusing to know and understand.

She says, in part:
Many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are . . . They can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally. They can refuse to know. . . . I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. . . . What is more: Those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

I'll still indulge in literary marshmallows, but you'll never convince me to avoid "hard" books altogether that have characters, themes, and stories that make me stretch, learn, and maybe even ache.

Stories that maybe, just maybe, will help me develop a bit of godlike compassion and understanding.


Happy Mom said...

Love the thoughts! (and there were two books listed that I haven't read! On to the library!)

Sherri said...

If you could see me, I am giving you a standing ovation!!! Totally great thoughts.

Sue said...

I agree wholeheartedly and have always read broadly.


Jessica G. said...

I've become stuck in a YA dystopian rut. I think it might take the weight of Atlas Shrugged to get me out.

L.T. Elliot said...

Wow. Annette, I think this is one of the best posts you've ever written. Brava!

This is one of the reasons I read so widely, too. I slip into another person's skin, and having been there, can never see things the same way.

Jenny P. said...

I'm like you. I like light reading every now and again, but sometimes those soul clenching, hit you in the gut, touch you to the very core books are so completely necessary. I have a handful of books that I know have changed me for the better, have contributed to the makeup of you and what I am and want to be. That is priceless, to be touched so deeply by a book. And really, some of these books were HARD to read. Not hard as in "difficult to get through" but hard as in, "OH this pierces my heart and I don't know if I can keep reading" hard. But I do keep reading. Because I want my heart to stretch and grow and learn. Loved this post.

Heather B. Moore said...

Great post and thoughts. I also appreciated JK's commencement speech. I wrote an article on a similar topic in May and received a little push-back on it. I was shocked.

TisforTonya said...

clapping here... all true - we've always referred to the lighter fare as "bubblegum for the mind"... it's sweet, it has some flavor, you chew on it for a bit and spit it out... We all know that we don't get a very balanced diet if we only chew bubblegum - and as much YA as I read I have to be sure to throw in something REALLY deep and thought-provoking sometimes...

(not saying that YA can't be deep or thought-provoking... it can... it just... oh you know...)

Tristi Pinkston said...

Beautifully stated, Annette.

Luisa Perkins said...

Fantastic post! I look forward to following the links for further enlightenment.

Lara said...

I would much rather read a hard book than a fluffy one. Thankfully, most of my book club feels the same way, but we have had a few fluffs pop up here and there. Which is totally fine.

I'm reading a fluffy right now, because it was my free book from the library for finishing my summer reading. They had some good ones, too, but I'd already read every one of them. So I chose an author I'd heard of and people like, but is kind of fluffy. Having a hard time getting into it...which is my main beef with the fluff.

Melanie Jacobson said...

Phenomenal post, Annette. I'm obviously not opposed to fluffy since that's what I write, but I take on several hard books a year. I especially love doing those type for book club because it adds something to share that experience with others. I have experiences profound moments of change through reading and I don't think the very best of the hard books ask us to grow; I think they force us to grow in spite of ourselves because they tell undeniable truths.

Great thoughts here.

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