If you were raised in a household like mine, your mom probably forced you to read a book during the summer at one point or another. Or maybe, you were super smart in high school, took Advanced Placement Language, and had hundreds of pages of mandatory summer reading.
But, let’s be honest. Did you actually read the book, or did you just read SparkNotes?
Reading was once something most of us enjoyed, but it became forced upon us at some point, whether through parental control or demanding professors, and lost its zest. It just began to feel like extra work.
After three months of quarantine, with online learning, academic reading, and thirteen episodes of Outer Banks, the last thing anyone probably wants to do is touch another book.
But books have the power to change the trajectory of the rest of your life. Reading can help someone land a new job, end the bitterness after a terrible break-up, or give a completely new purpose in life. That is the power of reading.
After a whirlwind of a semester and being ripped from a study program in Washington, D.C. due to the coronavirus pandemic, I struggled with homework deadlines and a lack of motivation. When classes ended, however, I forced myself to pick up a book. I read Barbara Bush’s “Pearls of Wisdom,” a collection of advice from a woman who spent her time as First Lady to promote literacy.
Literacy is more than learning to read and write. Bush sought to prove that no matter what walk of life someone came from, the influence of widespread literacy would teach people to be better humans, friends, students, employees, and citizens.
“I’ve talked to the CEOs of big and little companies, and civic and education leaders, and mayors and governors, and to students and teachers,” she said. “They’ve all taught me a great deal… And I’d like to emphasize the most important thing I’ve learned: Literacy is everybody’s business. Period.”
As a family woman herself, Bush believed strongly in the power of literacy to bring together the family unit, which would serve as the source of well-being for the rest of society. If only families read together, invested in each other through quality time, and taught the virtues of old through daring stories, then maybe future generations would be better off. Not only would those future generations become more motivated, independent, and honorable, but they would be connected.
With the increased use of social media and technology, younger generations are becoming more separated from real relationships with the people around them, less in tune with the values that made older generations inspiring, and gaining only shorter attention spans.
While social distancing, I decided to FaceTime my 7th-grade cousin. She told me she was grounded from watching videos on TikTok, and said, “Because I have nothing to do at night now, I read. I don’t even remember the name of the book. I think it’s called…” Then, it hit me. Reading isn’t popular. In fact, a lot of kids don’t even think about doing it anymore. Maybe that plays some part in the fear that we feel about the next generation.
According to the Huffington Post, an Australian study said that 63% of kids admit they rarely read for fun. The Post also reported that “a whopping 90% of children surveyed in the Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report said they would read a book that they had chosen themselves.” Reading a book that genuinely interests a reader is linked with greater success rates in school, a greater inclination toward reading in general, and building family connections as children read with their parents or share what they are learning from reading.
But today, it seems the current generation of young thinkers are being taught by their screens.
According to the American Psychological Association in 2018, “In recent years, less than 20% of U.S. teens report reading a book, magazine or newspaper daily for pleasure, while more than 80% say they use social media every day.”
Reading is a discipline. It’s not easy, like picking up a phone and scrolling through Instagram for hours. But the stakes and the rewards are so much higher.
Reading teaches people to remove themselves from the rest of the world, their overwhelming thoughts and today’s problems temporarily in order to focus on one thing from an objective, outside perspective. As a reader exposes himself to thoughts different from his own, determines how he would handle similar situations, and learns about his place in the world, he can’t walk away from a book the same person.
Books can offer us a new perspective. When you read a story or a biography, look at things from a different perspective, and eventually ask yourself what you would have done in the same situation, then you begin a process of self-reflection which can result in personal growth. The experiences that another went through, and its subsequent wisdom and lessons, can become our own. And the personal growth that results can then lead to a change in one’s home, school, community, and world.
In a Russian short called “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov, two men make a bet to see whether one of the men, if supplied with whatever luxuries he desires, could live in solitary confinement — another word for quarantine, perhaps — for fifteen years. Provided only with books, fine dining, and musical instruments for this duration, the man concludes his voluntary sentence by penning a letter revealing his profound lessons throughout his isolation.
In this letter, he tells the other man that that, although confinement had kept him from traveling and physically experiencing the world, it was through literature, studying foreign languages and art, and making music that he was able to dine with kings, fall in love, and cross natural boundaries without leaving his room.
But what the man ultimately learned is that, although traveling, parties, and education may be part of the memories that make up life, they are not what make life worth living nor remembering. It’s the lessons we learn from these experiences that make those memories worthwhile and rich. Otherwise, it’s all just going through the motions. We’re only existing at that point, not living, not thriving.
So while stuck in quarantine this summer, pick up a book and do your summer reading. It doesn’t need to be a textbook or an encyclopedia, but something that is genuinely interesting. Something that excites you. Take a journey through those pages, and learn something that will change the rest of your life.
Isabella Redjai is a George Washington Fellow and a junior studying political economy.