At the end of last semester, overwhelmed and feeling frayed around the edges, while walking purposefully toward my next meeting I decided to turn right, away from my destination, and instead head toward the library stacks. By habit I entered the section on fiction. I wasn’t searching for books to read. I just wanted to be among them.
My normal end-of-semester hyperactivity and panic slowly eased from the smell: the familiar, comforting odor of bindings, glue, and paper. I breathed deeply. I slowed down and began looking at the rows of books. And by chance I located a trilogy of Young Adult (YA) novels recommended by a student — the Divergent series by Veronica Roth.
Rejuvenated, I went toward the desk to check out the first of the series and ran into our librarian, Rich, who steered me toward a display of new books. There I found Barkskins by Annie Proulx, a historical novel that I had intended to buy. So I took that, too. And got into a discussion with another librarian, John, about mystery novels. He promised that when I finished the books I had just checked out to hook me up with one of his favorite authors. This brief visit to the library had completely altered my state of mind.
We readers comprise a community that non-readers probably can’t fully comprehend. When I was in graduate school at New Paltz, one of my fellow teaching assistants said that she believes people form friendships later in life based on the books they read as children. I am not sure that I agree — I have always been a lover of nineteenth-century novels (The Secret Garden and Eight Cousins were favorites), whereas my husband prefers science fiction — but I do know that people connect through literature. During the Harry Potter craze my students and I discussed which house we would be in at Hogwarts, and later, when Twilight was big news, arguments about who was sexier, Edward or Jacob, helped me to bond with my female students (the male students, unfortunately, found our disputes trivial and dull).
As an adolescent, books saved me from a crushing depression. I felt isolated. I was overly sensitive and took everything personally. I thought I was weird, ugly and inferior. But during the times when I was in school struggling with bullies, or in bed curled into the fetal position wishing I could get it over with and die, I still had a stack of books that could transport me from my world into another.
In books I discovered people like myself. I read YA novels like Trixie Belden, in which the protagonist was a smart, independent girl whose curiosity often got her into trouble — like me. My mother gave me historical novels like Jubilee Trail that illustrated the struggles of women to survive in difficult times. And eventually I discovered flesh-and-blood friends who also were readers.
A select few of us enjoyed weekends lying on my bed reading together. I often carried my favorite book in my bookbag, perhaps for the same reason my students are reluctant to part with their cell phones. I remember in high school one of my acquaintances snatched a book from my hands and flung it into the mud. I was furious. She clearly was not a member of my reading community; she lacked respect for me — and for books and the many lives within them.
Reading has always sustained me, as a passion and as an escape. In the early 2000s I experienced a rough period when I changed jobs, my husband was diagnosed with cancer, both of my parents died, and I moved from a house and town that I loved to one with which I was unfamiliar. The multiple changes left me emotionally numb. I was in denial. I insisted to everyone that I was fine, although a colleague noted that I was skeletally thin. I spent the winter of 2014 reading. I went to work, came home, ate dinner, and curled up in bed with a book. As I drove or worked I thought not of what I was doing but of what I was reading. I am not sure whether I made the connection between my life then and my struggle as a teen, but just as they had when I was depressed in my adolescence, books eased my pain.
I recently read an article written by Marc Prensky (“Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”) about the differences between people like me who learned to use computers in our late twenties (digital immigrants) and people like my students who were raised with technology (digital natives). “Today’s average college grads have spent less than 5000 hours of their lives reading,” Prensky writes, “but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV).”
Like many members of my generation do, I worry about the effect that not reading may have on my students’ intellectual development. But I wonder, too, whether my thinking might be limited. My students have explained to me that video games serve similar purposes to them as books did for me. They turn to these games to escape their lives, to sustain themselves through difficult times. Video games, they explain, tell stories — and as “readers” they not only enjoy the narratives but can actively participate in them to shape their outcome.
We use stories to expand our horizons, to teach us about others — and to teach us about ourselves. My love of Victorian literature is matched only by that for YA fiction, created for adolescents who need to learn alternative ways of perceiving their lives. As a teen, I trusted the characters in my books not to criticize or to hurt me. I was open to messages I might not have heard otherwise. Lessons taught by characters like Harry Potter and Dumbledore (Voldemort was defeated by the power of love, not hatred and violence) can reach readers in ways that parents and teachers cannot.
Perhaps the future lies in digital narratives, like videogames. I just hope, for the sake of young lives, that they are as effective as books.
Lynne Crockett is an English professor and Chair of the Liberal Arts Division at SUNY Sullivan.