What do a book editor in New Orleans, a schoolgirl in Adelaide, and an engineering student in Selangor have in common? They’re among 12 strangers that I’m choosing books for this year.
This is a special guest post by Ann Morgan, author and book blogger of A Year of Reading the World.
The project, called Postcards from my bookshelf, is my way of marking the five-year anniversary of a reading quest that changed my life. In 2012, I set out to journey through a book from every UN-recognized country (plus a couple of extras) in a year and asked the world to help me. I had no idea whether anyone would be interested but I was quickly overwhelmed by the comments that flooded in from all over the planet sharing ideas about books. Four days later, when a woman in Kuala Lumpur asked if she could go to her local English-language bookshop to choose my Malaysian book for me, I knew something extraordinary was happening. Sharing a love of reading not only had the power to kick off discussions, it could also make things happen. It could prompt strangers into acts of kindness; it could forge lasting friendships; and it could connect people across space, time, and political, religious, and cultural divides.
Five years on, I’ve been reminded of that power once again in the diversity of the more than 200 people who have responded to my invitation to apply to have me choose them a book. I’ve heard from teenagers and octagenarians, publishing industry professionals and school students, and booklovers from six of the world’s seven continents. (If anyone based at the Halley Research Station in Antarctica wants to get in touch, I’d love to collect the set!) Among those to request a book are a 12-year-old girl in Pakistan who has also made it her goal to read the world, a Vietnamese woman cycling around the globe with her boyfriend, and an elderly man caring for his terminally ill wife.
Sharing a love of reading not only had the power to kick off discussions, it could also make things happen.
As with the messages I received during my original project, a large number of the comments have been surprisingly moving. I have been struck by the candor of the strangers who have contacted me, many of whom have shared personal stories about how books have helped them through — and even enabled them to escape — difficult times. From the translator living on a Greek island eager to find a story that will help her understand the experiences of the refugees flocking to her homeland to a Malaysian woman who discovered a love of books when she was introduced to Enid Blyton while bedbound during a long childhood illness, my invitation to share thoughts about books seems to have given people license to open up about their lives too.
This frankness has got me thinking. Once again, as I did during my year of reading the world (when people I’d never met went to such extremely generous lengths as writing me things to read from scratch and volunteering to translate an entire short story collection so that I could read a book from São Tomé and Príncipe), I’ve been prompted to ponder what exactly it is about books that has the power to connect people so profoundly. How come stories have this tendency to bring out the best in us and forge links between individuals who might otherwise appear to have little in common?
For me, the answer lies at least partly in the fact that reading is a fundamentally social act. Although the modern image of a solitary reader tends to dominate our thinking about the relationship between people and texts, storytelling has its roots firmly in direct communication. From the ritualistic performances of the tragedies by writers such as Aeschylus and Sophocles in Ancient Greece to the proud oral traditions still going in nations as diverse as Niger, Croatia, and the Marshall Islands, the sharing of narratives has always been about one human being imparting something to another. The ability to write things down has enabled authors to reach further, stretching across miles, over decades, and even from beyond the grave to engage people whose grandparents may not have been born when their tale was created.
How come stories have this tendency to bring out the best in us and forge links between individuals who might otherwise appear to have little in common?
Just as can happen when we have a meaningful conversation face to face, great stories have the power to influence our thinking. Several experiments conducted in recent years, among them a study by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research, have shown that readers of literature generally have a greater ability to gauge the emotions of their fellow human beings, with those given literary texts to read consistently showing higher levels of empathy than non-readers. The business of imagining the world through another person’s eyes as we do when we read a story is almost as good as experiencing another human being’s reality when it comes to enlarging our understanding of others.
I found this to be the case when I encountered stories told from perspectives markedly different to my own during my reading quest. One of the most challenging texts I tackled that year was Ri In Mo’s My Life and Faith, the Pyongyang-published book I selected as my pick for North Korea. Having expected to write this so-called memoir by a former Korean War correspondent off as a laughable piece of propaganda, I was surprised to find myself touched by some of the writer’s observations, challenged by his comments about the Western media and moved to the occasional chuckle by his reflections on his wife’s complaints about his old-fashioned language. While I could never condone the atrocities committed by the regime the book praised, I could recognize the humanity of the man who held those views — and appreciate the role that the Western tendency to monster and dehumanize those in power in the world’s most secretive state has in maintaining the status quo.
I’m not sure I could have arrived at such a nuanced understanding in a face-to-face discussion. Being confronted with written pages, with which it was pointless to argue back directly, meant that I was obliged to give Ri’s points longer consideration and read his arguments to the end without leaping in to contradict. The book acted as a sort of protective barrier, as well as a bridge, between me and its subject matter. Because it parceled up the thoughts and experiences of someone writing 15 years before and 5,000 miles away, it shielded me from the immediate situation. In reading it, I was not obliged to enter into a discussion or take action as I might have done on social media; I could simply imagine and think. Paradoxically, however, by keeping me at one step’s remove from North Korea, the book made it possible for me to enter into its writer’s perspective far more profoundly than I would probably have done had I met him in person.
When it comes to fiction, the shielding quality of books plays a similar role in enabling texts to move us. Some commentators have even suggested that knowing that the people we are reading about are fictional enables us to inhabit others’ concerns more intimately. In Empathy and the Novel, Suzanne Keen describes an experiment she conducted with her students using three texts: a passage from a novel set in Botswana, an apparently genuine handwritten letter from a Ugandan schoolgirl, and a scam 419 email. The participants were generally more receptive to the fictional account and demonstrated much more enthusiasm for the character at the center of it than they did for the writers of the other two documents. It was as though knowing the person they were reading about did not exist enabled Keen’s students to let their guard down and feel genuine sympathy without fear that they would have to do anything as a result.
This no-strings aspect of reading might make the practice sound rather passive and self-indulgent, perhaps even voyeuristic; yet recent neuroscientific research shows that such acts of imagining have the potential to make us do things differently (or at least be inclined to do things differently) over time. The last decade’s increased understanding of the way the brain continues to change throughout adulthood has thrown up some fascinating findings about how envisaging different realities can alter habits of thinking. In a study at Harvard Medical School, for example, scientists found that volunteers who spent time imagining themselves playing a piano exercise showed exactly the same neural development as those who spent the same period practicing physically. It was the thinking, rather than the doing, that counted.
Under the right conditions, stories have the power to shape us.
When it comes to books it’s a similar story. There is increasing physical evidence to back up the idea that reading can be transformative. Even if, as Paul B. Armstrong points out in How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art, you would have to read a huge number of texts to effect lasting change, the implications are huge. Under the right conditions, stories have the power to shape us. They let us imagine our way into being different — more generous, more large-minded — people.
This goes some way to explain the bond that often seems to exist between strangers who have enjoyed the same book. Much like tourists who have shared a formative journey to a particular destination, these armchair travelers have passed through and been changed by the same mental landscape. They have met in an author’s head. And, however temporarily and marginally, they have been made more like each other as a result.
For this is the extraordinary thing about books: though most of us in the English-speaking world read in solitude, we are brought into greater communion with others through engaging with stories. When we encounter a published text, we become part of a community that has the power to involve and connect all human beings. From a book editor in New Orleans to an engineering student in Selangor. And from a schoolgirl in Adelaide to a woman in London who once upon a time set herself the challenge of reading the world.
Read more from Ann Morgan at A Year of Reading the World.