I finished a book this week–my third of the summer.
In June, I tore through Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks. In July, it was Heartburn by Nora Ephron (oddly recommended by Matt Dicks’s delightful wife, Elysha). And earlier this week The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I found each one easy to pick up and tough to put down. I loved getting lost in the reality of these characters any of whom could be people in my everyday life.
Many academics will tell you that they don’t read for pleasure, casually laughing over the last time they read a “book book” as opposed to a “work book.” When reading is part of your work, and when what you read is so laden with heavy jargon or depressing statistics, you find yourself conditioned to read speedily, frantically searching for the argument to critique. Reading for pleasure requires you to slow down, to appreciate the prose, to connect to a world or a character or an idea. Work reading, for me at least, is about consumption at a fast clip.
As a child, I was an avid reader and I longed to be a writer just like the authors I loved. I started to lose my love of reading, though, around middle school when English class layered on expectations of understanding theme and tone and metaphor. I felt pressured to discover something in the text that might not resonate for me, that might not even make sense to me. In high school, I slowly disconnected from reading for pleasure because reading was so entangled with others’ expectations or interpretations of text. As a college and graduate student, the sheer amount of reading expected of you is so daunting that it could dull your interest entirely. Only now as a recovering student have I edged slowly back to reading as an indulgent escape.
Reading reminded me how important perspective taking can be.
Perspective taking is something I do as a matter of course as a sociologist. All I do is see things from another perspective, turning social norms on their head or troubling assumptions we make about our social lives. Sometimes, I forget that perspective taking does not come as easily to other people, and simple, poetic stories are a powerful way to shake up how we think or even what we think.
Narratives help us understand a perspective that is different from our own. This is true of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, where many powerful narratives are emerging to help us understand frustration, fear, and desperation. None of these narratives are new, but they have a new platform and broader audience in social media. There is endless potential in using narrative as a tool for reaching students in my teaching, as a way to shed light on veiled experiences in social life: poverty or racism, mental illness, and violence. Though I have not lived these experiences, I can start to appreciate and learn through fictional and nonfictional accounts.
My reading this summer expanded my perspective on parenting. Two of the three books I read were written from the perspective of children: one an eight-year-old imaginary friend and the other a sixteen-year-old terminal cancer patient. Their stories reminded me that though parents try to take the perspective of their children, our adult view of the world is colored in a way we can’t quite discern. We try to see the world through their eyes but often can’t unhinge what we know or how we feel about people, places and things. Even if on some days, we get to see or experience the world as they do, we will never fully understand their confusion, their disillusionment, and their frustration over their place in the world.
None of these stories occupied a grand scene, rather these accounts captured relatively ordinary people facing the challenges of living everyday life. I got lost, though, in the arc of each story, the delicious snippets of text, the words they said, their thoughts and fears, and the final resolution of each tale. I felt inspired by and humbled by their stories.
My day job gets a bit myopic and sometimes, I forget that as a teacher and a writer, reading makes you better at both. I struggled with what to write in this 100th Rogue Cheerios post because I wanted it to be monumental and special and congratulatory. Instead, I am happy to remind myself and my readers that perspective is so often lost on those not paying attention. And as John Green writes in The Fault in Our Stars, “…the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention…”
And upon noticing a new angle on life, I hope you’ll help others see that perspective, too.