“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”Paulo Coelho – The Alchemist
I first started reading fiction some time in elementary school. I still have vague memories of heading to the small library and running my finger along the colored spines, scanning titles, and drawing out a book to borrow. Books written for children, but books nonetheless.
Later, as I acquired the necessary language to be able to read more fluidly I became immersed in sci-fi and devoured what were regarded as the “must read” books at the time. Many still are. The stories of strange worlds with rules that were foreign to me, of adventure, of tragedy, of heroics captivated me. I could never have imagined any of this. And I wondered, what might it be like to be one of the characters in these books.
Since then, my reading of fiction genres has broadened greatly. Every book I pick up, even the ones I find too tedious to finish, has a story to tell that is not my own. Through translated works of places I have never been to, dystopian novels of places I hope never to exist, mythology, and stories of lives lived, I have been able to travel to worlds that I could not ever travel to otherwise.
The real wonder of such journeys, the one that continues to imprint itself on me, is that I cannot ever tell you what I know from such reading. I can only tell you of what I feel and of what I know of myself. Unlike non-fiction, with its facts, theories and practical advice, fiction is a world of possibility.
My wife and I read to our son John nightly, and as I think about the times I read to him, I recall the peace and innocent intimacy of the opening scene in The Princess Bride, where Peter Falk is reading to his grandson in bed.
One of the beautiful things about reading to a child is that it frees them from the cognitive demands of deciphering the complexities of the text themselves. The series of books we are reading are sprinkled with words that are largely beyond John’s vocabulary and, so, when he reads by himself, he is constantly interpreting or stopping to ask what the words might mean. As an adult, it is relatively straightforward to substitute words, or rephrase in ways that are comprehensible to him. While this may change the author’s intent, it allows him to continue to live in the story. He simply lies back and listens. And this is important.
When we read fiction intently, we allow ourselves to become immersed in places that we otherwise may never imagine. The beauty of such books is that they provide a coherent framework within which we might explore what might be. They leave enormous scope for willing minds to visualise and fill in all the detail that the words do not convey. When reading to John, I ask him to close his eyes, listen to the words, and paint pictures in his mind of what might be. I ask him to add color, sound, scent and taste. I ask him to imagine.
I ask him to identify with the characters and walk their paths with them. Currently, we are reading John Flanagan’s -Ranger’s Apprentice: The Icebound Land. As I recently read to him about “wolfships” crossing stormy seas to reach safe harbors on the way to Skandia, I asked John to see in his mind and feel in himself what this might be like. What might it be like to be an oarsman, buffeted by the wild weather that exists? What might it feel like to make it through such a trial and reach calm waters? How might you feel John, when you are safe on dry land, sitting around an open fire with your companions, devouring your first hot meal in weeks, knowing that you will be safe tonight?
There is no one here to judge his responses to the questions that arise; there is no right answer. He knows he can explore in the safety of his room and, as he does, that he can express his emotions openly. And this opens up the scope to learn.
Young children, generally, don’t have the the ability to identify and label their emotions well. Neither do some adults, for that matter. Yet psychologists tell us that the accurate labeling of emotions allows us to deal with those emotions in a constructive way. Such an environment of reading with purpose gives us the opportunity to explore some of these labels and how they may be used to refine the commentary that he provides when he is communicating his feelings. And this is happening. He is increasingly using more precise words, and this allows us to delve into the issues that give rise to those feelings in a much more meaningful way.
As I speak with him in this way, I think of others whom I have known and trust, those with stories different to mine, and I ask myself what questions they may have of this boy as he finds himself in such make believe worlds. Through hearing their voices in my words, I become more aware of my own connections and the diversity that they bring and he, in whatever small way, discovers places in thought and feeling that he might otherwise never find.
In doing so, freed from any social pressures, he increases his understanding of himself. Just as importantly, the alternate perspectives that he can approach through stories and questions allow him to explore the possibilities of how others may be feeling. It helps him develop his capacity for emotional empathy.
This is no small thing, for such empathy is one of those responses that we cannot experience through will, or through “how-to” guides. Such empathy which can be a powerful pre-cursor to compassion requires an understanding of the conditions of others. Such empathy can only be gained by our immersion into others’ lives, and we cannot ever hope to do this in the real world as much as we need to.
While fiction may not be this real world, it does, if we are willing, place us in situations where we can gain some acquaintance with what might be. This is why I read it for myself, and this is why I read to John.