What do “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games,” “Walking Dead” and “The Da Vinci Code” all have in common? They’ve all spent time near or at the top of the bestseller list, for starters. And they don’t turn up very often in the classroom.
Reading is magic, advocates of the book love to point out. It’s difficult not to notice, however, that it seems to have become less magical over time.
As kids, stories hold enormous sway over our senses. Whether a glossy picture book or one of grandpa’s old stories, children are happy to listen to the same tale over and over again, each time enthralled throughout their entire being as if hearing the story for the very first time.
As we grow older we may find longer books to dip into, immerse ourselves in more complicated worlds.
And then it hits.
The assigned reading list.
In middle and high school, nothing kills enjoyment of a book faster than having it assigned to read over a break, that is otherwise school-free.
Of course, many people make it through the resistance-to-mandatory-classics phase and still end up English majors on the other side. But something important happens to reading in-between. It morphs ever so slowly from magic into mental exercise.
Reading becomes sophisticated, nuanced, an interplay between plot, style and symbolism that is considered successful only if it leaves the reader thinking, and thinking hard.
Writing is art, and its intricacies deserve to be appreciated. But the result of all this academia is that people can become so caught up in what the particular yellow tulip on page 57 does or does not represent, they can forget how much they used to love a good story.
At worst, they forget they ever loved a good story at all.
The benefits of reading are numerous. A few as listed by News India Times include active brain exercise, increased vocabulary, improved concentration, and a boost in self-esteem, discipline, and creativity.
A wonderful list to be sure, but too often these advantages read like the label on a box of vitamins. Good for you, but not necessarily fun to swallow. Increased vocabulary? One would think a pop quiz was on the way.
The benefits of having fun, as it turns out, are profound. Relaxed people live longer lives, spend more of that extra time feeling happy about it all, and avoid the myriad health problems that come with a full-strength dose of stress every day.
In fact, stress can wreak such havoc on a person’s health, that the Mental Fitness Center stresses the importance of decompressing as one of the most important things someone can do for his or her own well-being.
What better way to de-stress than by plunging yourself into a book? Not that you are reading simply because you need the literary credibility, but because when you pick it up it engrosses you and makes you honestly happy?
Once in a while it’s important to take a step back and remember that there are other worlds out there, in other people’s lives, other worlds in your own head. It’s amazing what not thinking about it for a moment can do for a person’s ability to see a situation clearer.
Why have all those books spent time at the top of the bestseller list? Because it’s hard to read them and remember what’s going on in the rest of the room around you. It’s hard to read them without reading just one more chapter than you planned to. It’s hard to read them without a smile coming to your face, because it’s true.
Stories can be magic. And you get to be your own magician.
Hari Rai Khalsa is a Stanford 2011 Graduate in Athropology.
This entry was published in The Pioneer Online on Thursday, March 22nd, 2012 at 6:30 pm.