How Reading Makes Us Better People (and a Challenge!)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

I have this shirt. It says, “You are what you read.” I like it because it implies I should be a wizard for all the times I’ve read Harry Potter.

Of course it doesn’t quite work that way, though. I wish!

We won’t literally become every character we read about, or get sucked magically into every novel’s world through a portal that appears in our bedrooms (though, yes, that would be awesome).

But still, we are what we read. How does that work?

I would argue that, in addition to literature, all of the humanities and liberal arts (history, philosophy, theology, etc.) teach us principles that nourish our souls. Whether learning by example from events of the past, discussing complex social and ethical dilemmas, or theorizing on the nature of God -- when taught well, these subjects actually teach us how to become better people.

The study of literature is unique, though, because it takes this one step further. Instead of keeping discussion in the world of abstract theory, once a character is given a story, he or she becomes much more accessible. A recent Women’s Health article cited a study that demonstrated reading character-driven fiction (and narrative nonfiction, too, I assume) increases our capacity for empathy and compassion.  In reading about other people, real or imagined, from their point of view, we activate the same neurons that fire when a friend or family member tells us, in person, about something that happened to them.

At the risk of sounding like every English teacher you’ve ever had, reading expands our horizons by letting us live a thousand lives that are not our own, and opening us up to experiences we’ll never know. It’s how we’re able to step into another person’s shoes without doing some kind of sci-fi soul transplant, and develop our ability to understand what another is going through. So the more diverse works we select and immerse ourselves in, the better. What an extraordinary gift and privilege this is!

If you’re feeling super jazzed right now about reading all kinds of character-driven fiction, but you’re not sure where to start, let me help you out.

Three months from tomorrow is my first day of graduate school classes in the study of English Literature. Yay! And I can’t help but feel I should really milk this summer for the final opportunity (for the next two years, at least) it offers for un-guided reading.

So I’m definitely ready to hit the ground running (uh, hit the books…. reading?).

I work at the front desk in a dental office, and a couple of months ago, I started talking with a patient about “people” books she’d read and loved. I’m shameless in my hunt for recommendations, you see. I’m always asking other people what they’re reading. It’s a compulsion of being a bookworm, I guess. Anyway, this woman continued to spend her waiting time at this appointment writing a list of her favorites for me, and I’ve kept it in my bookshelf since, waiting to finish a few others I’d started before turning to it for my next contender.

And I think now is a perfect time to do that. Three months ahead of me and a passion for “people” books? I’m pumped.

You in, too?

If so, here’s the list. Happy reading!

  • ·      Anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • ·      The Kite Runner / A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
  • ·      Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • ·      The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • ·      The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
  • ·      My Sister’s Keeper / Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
  • ·      The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • ·      The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (she put three stars next to this one!)
  • ·      The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
  • ·      Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
  • ·      Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • ·      Anything by Barbara Kingsolver (except, she was adamant, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle)
  • ·      The Bluest Eye / Solomon / Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • ·      Meridian / The Third Life of Grange Copeland / The Color Purple / Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker


  1. Yay!! I'm finally getting myself back in the reading groove and finishing a book I've been milking for wayyyy too long, and now I'm definitely in the market for a refreshed and refreshing reading list. I'm in for a lit-loving summer :)

  2. Dani! I'm so glad, and I hope you enjoy these choices! Maybe we can make a mini book club out of our next chat? Have a wonderful summer, friend. :)