The Transformative Power of Reading

I have a social media friend—you know the type: you’re barely even acquaintances in real life but you have enough mutual friends to be friends online. We’ve been social media friends for some years now.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been watching her life transformed by the power of reading. That sounds cheesy and dramatic, I know, but it’s literally true.

My social media friend is currently in her early 30s. She’s Hispanic Latina, born into a fairly poor family, raised in a fairly poor neighborhood, with all the disadvantages inherent to such a background in this country. She had her first child when she was still in high school and married the father when she turned 18. They had a couple more kids over the next few years. She didn’t go to college. She went straight from high school to being a working mother, raising her children and holding down a series of part-time, low skilled, hourly wage jobs. A few years ago, she and her husband got divorced, so she took her kids and moved back in with her parents.

She decided to change the course of her life and she enrolled in a community college to get a degree in nursing. This is where her current transformation begins…

As a child, she grew up reading the usual stuff—Judy Bloom, Beverly Cleary, Little House on the Prairie, Sweet Valley High, Little Women, etc. She discovered science fiction and fantasy when she was a teenager. Once she had her kids, she depended on reading for escapism and alone time.

In the years that we’ve been friends on social media, her posts have all fallen into the same basic categories:

  • Updates about her kids, her husband (now ex), and her family;
  • Posts about gaming and SF geek culture;
  • Complaints about her various jobs;
  • Venting and coming to terms with the day-to-day challenges and struggles of her life as a working class (and now single) mother.

These things represent the scope of her world, as she chose to present it more-or-less publicly.

A couple of weeks ago, the nature of her posts changed. She began quoting passages of poetry and talking about what they mean to her. How beautiful they are, the solace and comfort and strength she finds in these words. How some of these passages make her happy, some make her sad, and some make her angry. She relates to this poetry on an intensely personal level—she writes about the ways it’s changing how she sees the world, how she sees herself, how it’s giving her new emotional tools and teaching her new strategies to cope with the problems she faces in her own life. She says it’s waking up parts of herself that she never even knew were dormant.

The poetry she’s reading now is transforming her life and empowering her in a brand new way. And I get to watch it happen.

It’s wondrous.

The passages of poetry she’s quoting on social media are from the works of Sophocles (specifically, his Theban plays). In all the years we’ve been friends online, given the demographics of her background, and given everything I know about her from our mutual friends, I never would have pegged her as someone with any interest in the classical Greek tragedians.

And now Sophocles is changing her life.

As it turns out, she had utterly no interest in classical Greek literature. She was required to take a certain number of liberal arts classes to fulfill the distribution requirements of her nursing program. She enrolled in a Greek classics course because she was on a deadline to get her distros completed and it was the only class that fit her schedule. She took it because she had no other options.

And now Sophocles is changing her life.

This old Greek man, writing about the dysfunctional aristocracy of Bronze Age Greece, is speaking directly the trials and tribulations of my social media friend’s everyday life as a working class Latina SF geek and mother in the 21st century. There’s nothing about this statement which isn’t utterly amazing.

I think back on all the times my life was changed because someone handed me a book that I would never have chosen for myself. All the opportunities I had to grow and expand my world because someone challenged me to read something I might never have discovered on my own.

The benefit I’ve reaped from these experiences over the years is immeasurable.

I’ve been very lucky to have had several people in my life who facilitated these transformations. My friend is lucky to have found a professor who helps her to see what the ancient Greeks can teach her today.

Books can change people’s lives. This is why I became a librarian. The right book, to the right reader, at the right time, and we can revolutionize someone’s world.

As a public library serving a core urban population, with concomitantly increased rates of illiteracy and significant portions of our community which have little culture of reading, much of our effort necessarily focuses on issues of basic literacy: teaching people how to read, encouraging people to make reading a regular part of their lives, early literacy initiatives. This is among the most important work we do.

It’s so much of what we do that it’s easy, sometimes, to lose sight of the fact that literacy doesn’t end there. Turning someone into a reader is just the beginning of the transformative power that reading can wield in a person’s life. Once we teach someone to read, once we transform someone into a regular reader, they then need opportunities to grow and expand their scope, to have their lives transformed again, and again.

Libraries are one of the few resources in a community that can reliably provide these sorts of transformative reading experiences.

Libraries are one of the very few places you can go where people are trained in the art of handing you a book that will change your life.

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