With the release of Harper Lee's new book on the horizon, the literary world is abuzz with tales of Southern literature, with Harper and Truman and what makes a good sequel and whether publishing a book at 88 is wise or ill-advised. It's all worthwhile conversation, and I am grateful for it. But really, all I keep thinking about is To Kill a Mockingbird and its legacy in my life; I think about Atticus and Scout and how fine I was with where I left them. I don't need a sequel or a parent or whatever you want to call it -- those characters are perfectly and wondrously imbedded in my imagination, and I am comfortable with them there.
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Those are the words I remember Atticus speaking, the words I suspect I'll remember for the rest of my life, and the words that remind me, every day, why reading is vital to who we are and why.
A dear customer and friend sent me this article from Time magazine a while back, every word reminiscent of Atticus's words to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Reading, it turns out, makes us more empathetic, more prone to sympathize. Good literature helps us better understand the people we interact with in "real life," all because we've been learning how to interact with the characters of the novels we love.
I find this remarkably true in my own life. When I read books, I am better able to empathize with real people. I can, as Atticus puts it, walk around in their skin for a bit. Reading makes that possible in ways I never would have understood had I not been a reader. Books make it possible for me to become someone else, and that in and of itself is a miracle.
This principle is why it's so important to read diversely, to read outside our comfort zones. It's why the One Book project we helped host last year was so important and so successful for our community. It's why we need to try harder to gravitate towards books and stories we're not familiar with. It's why Brown Girl Dreaming should be on your nightstand, why books about civil rights and foreign lands and different faiths should be on your list. It's why All the Light We Cannot See kept people talking and thinking for days after finishing.
Books don't really make us better people -- they can't unless we let them. It's just as important to read with an open mind as it is to read diversely, and too often, I think, we gravitate toward books and subjects that make us comfortable or cement our own ideas about the world. Shame on us! Shame on us for not taking the ticket when it is offered, for not opening our minds and our worlds toward people and things who are different from us, who might teach us a thing or two if we would only let them.
One of my new year's resolutions was to read more diversely, to read books by authors who might have different backgrounds from me and therefore different stories to share with me. And the truth is, of course, as I am reading books from different perspectives and periods, I am reminded we are really all more alike than not. Empathy becomes a little easier when we see ourselves as similar instead of different, when I find bits of myself in the unlikeliest of characters, the most unfamiliar of stories.
I don't preach often, but occasionally, it bubbles up in me and spills over onto the page. Here we are. I hope, then, you'll remember -- as you wander shelves and whisper in libraries and stack books beside your bed -- how important it is to grab books you might not typically read, to try stories you might not know too much about. Reading is the best kind of adventure, a passport into stories past, present, and future. They'll make us better if we let them. The choice -- as is so often the case -- is ours.