Catherine Morland, the naïve heroine at the center of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey asks, “Have you ever read Udolpho Mr. Thorpe?” Mr. Thorpe replies, “Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do.”
Never has man uttered a less sexy phrase.
As an avid reader and writer, books have chiseled my life such that I can’t distinguish who I am apart from the books I’ve read. Books contain universes, experiences, and challenges that I can try on and walk around in—to get the feel of a life—from which I have always emerge altered, changed, and cast anew. How is it that I can have such meaningful experiences in books, and yet someone like Mr. Thorpe believes his “something else” paramount to the life lessons that can be gathered within a book’s pages?
I strive to be open minded and nonjudgmental about people’s paths. I’m open to the unique ways in which people make their way through Life. But if I’m honest with myself (and you, dear reader), it turns out that, really, I’m not. I don’t understand people who don’t read. By strolling in a character’s footsteps, we develop new lenses through which we see the world and I find it difficult to trust folks who can’t be bothered to try on these other perspectives, places, and cultures.
A while ago, Scientific American published an article about the positive effects on the brain of reading literary fiction. Researchers at The New School in New York City “found evidence that literary fiction improves one’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling” (Chiaet). I know that we aren’t all reading Joyce Carol Oates or Jeffrey Eugenides at every turn but by reading more literary fiction, we increase our “capacity for empathy.” Reading well-crafted stories about the trials and tribulations of another increases our ability to feel compassion for the diverse paths we tread. Our attempts to understand one’s story hones our appreciation for the struggles faced by others. Our ability to thoughtfully consider the needs of others forges deeper awareness of and intensifies our gratefulness for the relative fortune of our own lives.
The more pop-culturally literate among you may recall Kanye West’s emphatic declaration, “I am a proud non-reader of books.” In this, Kanye West has become the Mr. Thorpe of our modern age. How can one not read? How can he, or any like him, proclaim with pride the fact that they have “something else” that’s more important, interesting, or valuable than exploring those doors opened by reading? What does this say about his character? In the case of Kanye West, I think that answer is clear, but what about the rest of us?
I propose that books become the new martini, bookstores the new bar scene. If you want to get to know me, buy me a book instead of a drink. If you’re interested in spending time with me, tell me about the story that spoke to your soul. I don’t want to know how many Twitter followers you have, but I am eager to know which authors you read and which book you’d take with you on your proverbial trip to a deserted island. Why waste time? I’d be mortified to discover that I’d wasted even fifteen minutes talking to a Kanye West.
As always, please write, tweet, or Facebook me (links on the left). Unless you’re a Mr. Thorpe. Then, go read a book.
P.S. If you’re on Instagram, do yourself a favor and check out #hotdudesreading. You’re welcome.
Chiaet, Juliet. “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Scientific American, 23 March 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/.