Often times, during a dark hour or an idle point, a book has changed my life. There are countless books that have pointed me in a different direction, or taught me a lesson. There are also many books that have helped me articulate my own emotions or thoughts, helped me find a voice. If it weren't for the books I've read, I'd be a very different man today...I'd even argue I'd be less of a man.
Books, especially good ones, have that sort of power. If you let them, they can change your life, serve as another compass or guide, or give you a lift when you need it most. I'm sure you can think of at least one book that fundamentally changed you as a human being.
For all of us who've felt this transformation, or for anybody who hopes to find that in a good book, this is for you. Here are some of the ways reading a book can change your life.
At the very least, you will connect with the person at the other of the dialogue, the author. But you will likely connect with much more than that: the zeitgeist, the universe, a reality that exists somewhere else or that one day could be yours. Reading is a lifeline to all else that is.
Think about it: the book you are reading may have been written decades ago, in another country, maybe even in another language by a person who lived a completely different life. Or it may have been written in New Jersey a few years ago by some guy you know. Either way, you are having a conversation with someone else, and, if you nod along enough while reading the book, you're also finding a new friend and a friendlier existence.
Reading reminds you that you are not alone. Your struggles and dreams are shared. Your life is a part of a larger ecosystem. The greatest books comfort you with this sense of belonging.
As with any good conversation, when you read you do a lot of listening. You are on the receiving end of a wire transfer of knowledge (with no transaction fee). This other person, the writer, is imparting something, at the very least one thing, you didn't have before: a fact, a theory, a point of view, an emotion. They are letting you into a psyche (theirs, their alter ego's, their main character's) and letting you in on some secrets.
And they are hoping you care enough to truly listen.
So reading flexes your empathy. It works your capacity to connect to another person and invest yourself in their story. Even if you vehemently disagree with them, you get to know them, and as any script writer will tell you, that is how you end up using that giving-a-damn muscle.
Give any book the opportunity and it will teach you something. It will at least teach you what not to do or say or believe in. But in order for anything to happen, you have to give it a chance, and to give it a chance you need to be humble. You need to think, OK, let me put down my ego and hear ya out.
Reading will very likely remind you that everybody else is smarter than you. In some way, everyone else has an edge on you. Every one of us knows at least one thing better than everyone else. Our life experiences, by themselves, give us a leg up on the competition; nobody has lived our life.
Once you embrace this truth, your humility deepens, because you know you don't have all the answers, you and your world are not all of it.
It is like studying astronomy: you start with this world which encompasses everything you know; and then you move on to the planets, the awesome sun, the stars that dwarf the sun, the overwhelming constellations made of their own stars and planets, and on and on..
This makes me feel tiny. My entire reality, that which has taken me over 30 years to put together, is an infinitesimal part of "all of it."
But that's not where it ends. It also reminds me of how much more is out there. How much more is left to explore and know and live. My tininess is actually an invitation to let my imagination roam, let my eyes widen as much as possible to take more of it in.
Same goes with the books we read. Each of them open up a new window of this universe, and we have the option of letting our eyes widen and start exploring. But first, check that "I know everything" ego at the door.
The most moving (and enduring) books you collect are those that become a mirror. This mirror is placed in front of you when you read something that has you nodding along and thinking, yes, that is how it is. You just found a part of yourself.
You may cry, smile, or wince, because that's you you're reading. You feel like you've been searching this whole time for this moment, but never knew that. The author has perfectly described the world (your world), or reminded you of your past, shone a light on your core beliefs, or lit up that dim hope you carry.
The words written by a likely stranger have helped you connect with the person you ought to know the best, yourself, thus reminding you that sometimes a stranger appears within, too. But the more read, the more you'll educate yourself on yourself by finding what rings true.
Reading challenges you. Taking a book seriously means risking the chance of finding an adversary. A book may become a headwind. These challenging books push back on everything you hold true. They tell you human nature is inherently evil, or that the Church is at fault, or that America is not the greatest country in the world. It will essentially say you're wrong.
A poorly constructed book that does this is easy to dismiss. But one that has been carefully crafted, one that shakes you at your core, you can't brush off. It will demand that you stand up and defend your truths.
A challenging book will force you to re-think those flabby truths. What you considered true will be put to trial, and by defending them you will grow stronger, regardless of the outcome.
Reading helps you remain calm. It's as therapeutic as anything else. Once you start digging into a book that's caught your attention, time ceases to exist, your mind is completely immersed in what is in front of you.
As with anything that fully engages your attention, reading makes you stop rushing or running from one point to the next. Instead, you are where you need to be, right here, doing this, and all other things are secondary. The worries, anguish, fears, and ambitions of a moment ago are boxed away in a container that read "for later." Your only worry is flipping to the next page to find out what's next.
Reading is a pleasure -- it ought to be. Nobody has any time to read books you don't like.
These are not books you disagree with or challenging ones, but just those that cannot keep you interested. Whatever you choose to read should bring you pleasure at some level. The amount of time and space that you invest in these darlings should be an investment, not a cost. The return on this investment should be some sort of joy: a joy in having experienced it, a joy in having learned from it, or a joy in having found a new friend in it.
If this joy does not come up, not even in the first few pages, then I'd ask you this: would you buy a DVD for a movie you didn't like? Would you go on a second date with a guy who made you wince? Then why would you invest more of yourself in a book that is on that same level?
Life is too short to read books that don't bring you joy, or worse, that don't matter at all. Read what enriches your life, and your life will change because of it.