Some of my fondest memories are of my mom reading Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories to me when I was a kid.
My sister read…a lot! It’s natural for a younger sibling to do what an older sibling does, so I became a reader, too.
One of my favorite Christmas gifts ever was when my dad bought me the complete works of Jack London.
One of the greatest gifts a person can give to somebody young is a love of reading.
Here’s a list of ways that reading has helped me; I’m sure I’m not alone:
Concentration. I was a hyper little kid. The only time I wasn’t bouncing off the walls was when I was reading. (And even then — and even to this day — l tapped my feet or shook my legs while reading.)
Once you fall into a book, everything else disappears and it becomes easy to concentrate on the story. When the concentration that comes from reading becomes a habit, it’s easier to concentrate in school, at work, or around the house.
No excuse for boredom. Until I taught myself how to juggle, I got bored very easily. Plopping down on the couch or in my bedroom with a book took me someplace else (still does). As long as there are books, there’s never a reason to be bored.
Imagination. The stories that were read to us and that we read ourselves as children were stories full of imagination. Carl Sandburg, Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, and so many other writers made my mind race with ideas.
The ideas weren’t always rational, organized ideas — they were the kinds of ideas that you didn’t know could exist.
They were, and still are, important ideas and ways of looking at things differently brought about through reading.
Problem solving. As a writer, most of what I do is create situations that force me to solve problems.
Very early in my life I recognized that stories are full of obstacles and characters figuring out ways to get where they wanted, no matter what was in their way. That carries over to our lives.
Whether it’s a writing problem, a work problem, or a life problem, if I haven’t already seen it solved in a book, I at least give some credit to reading for helping me solve the problems I face.
A worldly view. As children, our worlds were small. We existed in the place where we lived, a neighborhood, and maybe jaunts to other places to visit relatives. The world around us was all we knew. As children, it was a safe assumption that the rest of the world was like our little world.
Reading changed that.
Reading The Jungle Book opened my eyes to India, a faraway place that was definitely not like the neighborhood I grew up in, north of Chicago. The more I read, the more I learned about the world. I realized that not everybody had it as good as I had it. I learned that people who seemed to have more sometimes had less in many ways.
Through reading, I realized the world was a huge place, and each of those places were so unique, with its own advantages and drawbacks.
Realizing that things aren’t as black and white as they seem — that there’s a story behind every situation — makes it hard not to be compassionate.
And the world can definitely stand to see more compassion.
The ability to relax. I think it’s important for a person to not be ruled by time. Sure, if you’re working 60-120 hours a week, you’re probably making more than me, but you can’t put a price on the time lost with family and friends. Reading is one of the biggest slaps in the face to our hurried lifestyles…it says, “I have time to sit and relax.”
Sitting still is good for the body. Even if you’re reading a suspense novel, giving your mind to a story is a form of meditation.
Relaxing is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves; reading provides a way to relax, learn, and enjoy our time.
Listening skills. The act of reading encourages listening; after all, what is reading but listening to an author share information or a story?
One of the many jobs I’ve had is training people. It never ceases to amaze me how many people have a hard time sitting and listening. They assume they know what you’re about to say (even when they don’t), and they start doing something wrong. Then, when they are corrected, they become smug and do it again, over and over.
Listening is one of the most important skills a person can have. Like relaxing, it says to others that you have some control over time, that you aren’t so rushed that you ignore others. Listening says you care about people.
I’ve avoided a lot of misunderstandings that take up more time by making sure I understood what somebody was saying before doing something. I could go on and on about the advantages of listening instead of rushing and assuming.
It’s been my experience that people who started reading books at a young age listen to people later in life and have an easier time at work and home than people who are so hurried they can’t even find the time to listen to the people who matter most to them.
An active brain. One of the most asked questions to writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?”
I get my ideas from a brain that is always active. When I’m reading, something may trigger a thought that becomes an idea that becomes an element in a story or a full story. As I drive or as I just sit on the couch thinking about things I’ve read, my mind wanders and the ideas flow.
Reading is a perfect combination of emotion and structure; it’s hard not to have an active mind when you read regularly.
Active minds solve problems, work well, and know how to express feelings. Active minds make for well-rounded individuals, and people like that have better odds in life than those who have difficulty thinking on their own.
Community. While some reports show a decline in reading, there are still a lot of people out there reading stories. Even the most shy reader, when meeting another reader, can find something to talk about — a love of reading is like a membership into a very large club.
Once I find out that somebody reads, I can talk with them for hours. Even if we read totally different things, talking about books and the experiences from reading are universal.
No matter where you are, if you say, “Has anybody read anything good, lately?” in a group, you’re likely to find at least one person with whom you have something in common.
And probably more than that!
Knowledge not in textbooks. There is such an emphasis in education to teach kids how to take tests very well, but little more. Information is crammed into heads to later be forgotten. The information is enough to get a decent job later in life, but I’ve seen many booksmart people have a tough time getting by on their own.
Reading exposes people to problems, cultures, and issues textbooks ignore. This isn’t to say that textbooks are bad, but the people I’ve met who have the most going for them spent just as much time with their noses in a novel as they did in textbooks.
* * *
Tonight my wife and I will visit my mom for Christmas Eve. I’m sure my mom will surprise me with some cool gifts, but the greatest gift she ever gave me was a love of reading.
I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the thousands of pages my eyes have scanned over the years.
If you celebrate Christmas and haven’t bought a book for a kid this year, there’s still time to hit one of the big booksellers or independent stores for some last-minute shopping!
It’s your chance to give a gift that can last a lifetime.