Books Fall Open, We Fall In.
“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
— Joyce Carol Oates
D uring, my middle school years, I did just that. Every Saturday starting in 6th grade, I didn’t sleep in. I’d pull down my dad’s comforter and drag his half-awake self to the car so I could go to the library and add another eight books to my ever-growing pile as he scrolled on his phone near the entrance. Instead of watching TV, I’d excitedly hole myself up on one corner of the couch for the rest of the day and simply read. At that age, I began to treat every page like the outside world itself, books simply unlocking the door my parents bolted tightly. I hungrily devoured the world’s secrets.
Growing up in an Indian household, I was kept sheltered from gay marriage, racism, and other controversial topics. However, through fiction, I was able to form opinions at a young age. It allowed me to grow in maturity through not only the frivolity of romantic young adult novels but also classics. As a middle schooler, I was a skeptic of classroom literature, simply trusting that I, obviously well-read, was definitely above these dated novels. I soon found out that it was the wrong sentiment through what quickly became my favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Through that book, I actually learned about racism with a complexity I could never have understood through the news, which I found to provide facts devoid of emotional connection. When I opened the book, I wasn’t desensitized by headlines, growing bored, and then flipping over to the comics section. Rather, I grew invested in the life of everyday Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, man against racism.
Despite his professional struggles in court, he was simultaneously raising two children and listening to the voices in his troubled town. In developing characters so realistic, authors like Harper Lee pull the reader into vicariously living their character’s experiences, a connection that cannot be found by reading about racism in a textbook. I, for one, could not help but become emotionally invested in Finch’s desire for justice for the Black community. Through Lee’s writing, I found myself relating to his frustration at the clearly biased court ruling. It’s that very attachment that caused me to find myself screaming “NO” in a silent library at what I’d concluded was an unfair verdict to the trial.
As a result of this constant exposure to fiction, I’ve grown not only knowledgeable about but also empathic to powerful causes. Books taught me how to step into conversations about politics and face the severity of discrimination in millennial America.
In my educational career, each required novel provided an accessible medium for me to understand important values and societal issues that parallel those in our everyday world. Oates reminds us that the rich background of characters in fiction allows readers to enter into a life they would never otherwise be able to live, and, in return for their increasing involvement with the nuances of a character’s life, they unknowingly reap the lessons the characters themselves learn. To be a successful adult, one must not only be passionate and knowledgeable about their chosen field of study but must also be aware of the society around them and its dynamic ebbs and flows. Fiction, through its richly layered stories and characters, provides that awareness.