How the Act of Reading Changes Lives
By: Allyson Mower
I was recently invited to give a speech at the Banned Books Week open reading at Marriott Library. The open reading has become an annual event and we had lots of librarians and students reading this year. Here’s the full text of the speech:
At the September Curiosity Bibliotherapy reading club at Marriott Library, we read and discussed a book called How Reading Changed My Life. It’s a memoir by Anna Quindlen. I read the book as I prepared this speech, as you can tell by the title. Quindlen talks about how reading made it possible for her to figure out who she was, what she wanted to do with her life, and how to take a measure of herself. She experienced reading as a way of finding out how others measured themselves, too, allowing her to feel connected to people who might otherwise be complete strangers.
I didn’t read as voraciously as Quindlen did as a child, but I certainly do now. I read multiple books at the same time, which means I can never remember any details. I get the daily newspaper, subscribe to magazines, and listen to lots of audiobooks and podcasts. Many of the works I’ve read recently have been recommended in part based on current events and they’ve had a lasting impact. I recently finished Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a great novel that introduced me to Korean history. I read the Warmth of Other Suns by Isabele Wilkerson a couple of years ago, an excellent work of narrative nonfiction about the great migration of African Americans from the South to the north and other parts of the country. I read No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie, an incredible biography about Joseph Smith. I’ve also read all of the Game of Thrones books because it’s so much fun to enter and observe big, complicated worlds full of machinations and intrigue. Plus the Wall made me feel cold as I sat reading in the hot St. George sun. Most recently, I read with much interest the joint statement and special counsel investigation report on Russian malicious cyber activity.
From all this reading, I learned I picked the wrong profession. I should have become a secret agent who instigates rumor wars instead of being a librarian. I’m just kidding.
From all the reading I’ve done, I’ve learned that I require a lot of freedom like Thea Kronberg in Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, that I like to sit and think like Ferdinand the Bull, a book my dad used to read to me as a kid, and that I like to help others, but not too much, about as much as Tyrion Lannister.
Being able to explore and learn is a great aspect of reading, but what I truly think the act of reading represents is the ability to use one’s mind. And this is always what makes reading both subversive and not done enough. Using your mind is hard. Figuring yourself out is hard. And understanding others and the world can be so challenging. The effort it takes to figure something out makes us want to hang on to it for dear life and not to have to figure it out again. We all so easily become comfortable and complacent in whatever way of thinking we’ve developed for ourselves, either informed by our families, our friends, our communities, or something we’ve already read.
We get comfortable enough that we stop reading. Or, even worse, we get comfortable enough that we don’t want others to read or think differently than we do, which is really what’s at the heart of banning books. You can’t read that book, that novel, that article or newspaper because it will make you change your mind, deteriorate your mind, dull your mind, go against the established order, disagree with authority figures, disrespect God, or corrupt the innocent. All stated reasons for people wanting to ban or challenge books ranging from titles such as Tropic of Cancer, The Book of Mormon, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian to Where’s Waldo. We all so much want to control what others read and think!
And that’s what makes the act of reading life changing. Reading centers you as the epistemic agent, the one responsible for figuring out a phenomenon or a situation. You think something one day because someone told you think that way or you learned to think that way. Then you READ something and that thought gets expanded, improved, or tweaked in some way. The act of reading challenges yourself as well as the status quo.
Allyson Mower, MA, MLIS is Head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.