In his novel “A Dance with Dragons,” George R. R. Martin says, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Reading is a necessary part of not just our academic education, but also of our spiritual and personal education. I have learned just as much from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Junot Diaz and Jeffrey Eugenides as I have from my professors. Yeah okay, reading Faulkner isn’t going to help you much on your calculus test, but he’s going to teach you lessons much more important than deriving a function. As college students, we are constantly reading, but something tells me that Martin is talking about fiction, not textbooks.
Humans, obviously, have very little time to spend alive, and as much as it pains me to think about, we all have to accept that we are going to have a finite number of experiences, and there will be millions of aspects of humanity that we will never experience. By reading about other people, we infinitely expand the number of experiences we can learn from. We don’t, for instance, have to fight Lord Voldemort to learn that love is more powerful than hate.
The goal of literature is to expose truths about the human condition that we might not otherwise realize. Certain truths only become apparent during certain moments in life, and there is simply not enough time for one person to live every single one of them.
Literature also forces us to empathize. As human beings, we are inherently selfish, and this is not entirely a bad thing—without our strong desire to improve our own lives, our society would not be where it is today. However, this also means that we spend our entire lives inside our own heads, and this makes it very difficult to feel the things that other people are feeling. We are notoriously bad at being sympathetic towards other peoples’ problems. When we read fiction, we are plunged into the head of a completely different person, making us privy to all of their thoughts, feelings and insecurities. This all-access pass into someone else’s brain is valuable because it is incredibly difficult to imagine other people as individuals just as complex as ourselves. Through literature, we get to practice our empathy, which ultimately makes us better friends to each other.
Finally, reading closes cultural, ethnic and generational gaps because books can be used to initiate discussion and promote understanding between people. When groups of people read the same material it gives them a common ground. Though we might be exposed to the same material, every person will have a different interpretation.
At its best, reading is a collaborative effort, not a singular one, and by talking to each other about books we are able to better understand why we all think differently. By providing a non-controversial medium that everyone has access to, we can become more educated about our differences and practice taking each other’s points of view into account.
Right now, we are at a turning point in our lives—we are in college, which means we have one foot in the self-absorbed world of adolescence (where we were congratulated for our achievements and supported, for the most part, by the adult figures in our lives) and one foot in the “real world” (that scary place with bills and mortgages).
Now is the time where we need to be absorbing as much knowledge as possible, not just about philosophy or physics, but about humanity.
Exploring truths about the human condition and learning to think outside ourselves are vastly more important than memorizing the periodic table. We must read, we must read fiction, and we must read it now.