Today we join with the International Reading Association in celebrating International Literacy Day. This day was established by UNESCO in 1965 to focus attention on worldwide literacy needs. On this occasion, we asked author Barbara Shoup to share her thoughts on why reading matters.
A few years ago, I visited a high school English class that had read my YA novel, Stranded in Harmony. A spirited discussion about whether or not characters in books for young people should have sexual relationships ensued. Some said, yes—it would be dishonest not to, considering that so many teenagers are sexually active. Others said, no—to acknowledge such relationships is to encourage and condone them, and that’s not right. One said, maybe it would be okay for characters to have sexual relationships, but only if they were punished for them in some way—social ruination or pregnancy. The discussion went back and forth for some time. Then at the very end of the period, when kids were starting to gather their belongings in anticipation of the bell, a girl in the back, one who hadn’t participated in the conversation, raised her hand.
“I’m pregnant,” she said. “This book really helped me understand why my boyfriend acted the way he did when I told him.”
The bell rang, and she was gone—before I could thank her and tell her that what she had said was spot-on, not to mention the reason why I read and write fiction.
A good novel, one that presents life in all of its complexities, opens a door through which you enter the mind of someone who is not you. It makes you privy to the “whys” behind the faces characters presents to the world, which bring insights to the why the people in your real life behave the way they do—as it did for the girl in that class.
A good novel can also help you understand yourself. It can help you see the difference between the person you know you are inside and the person people perceive you to be because of the way you behave. It can make you braver, more willing to take a chance on someone. It can make you feel less lonely, knowing there others out there, struggling to make sense of life, as you are.
Best of all, reading good novels makes you curious about the human condition. You become less likely to make instant judgments about people, more likely to figure out why people do what they do less. Curiosity almost invariably begets compassion—and, together, they trump hate every single time.
Barbara Shoup's latest novel, An American Tune, was released this month. For more information about the book, visit our website or listen to an IU Press podcast.