How Reading Can Change Your Life

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How Reading Can Change Your Life (And The Book That Can Do It)

Whatever age you might be, as you look back on your life and try to figure out how you’ve gotten to where you are, your first inclination is probably to plot it out like a novel with the kind of landmarks that are common to almost anybody. Your first day of school, the day you met your one true love, or the day your child was born can all have an enormous impact on your perspective of the world.

Even so, it’s not always a major event that changes the direction of your life. Many people have experienced dramatic revelations simply by choosing a book at random. The act of reading can open up unexplored avenues of knowledge or even demonstrate another way of thinking by way of a character’s actions in a story. In today’s marketing saturated world it can sound trite to say that a book will change your life. Nevertheless, it’s still true that finding the right book at the right time can have a transformative effect on you.

That’s why if you’re a big reader, or even a big writer, it can be really inspiring to just step back and take stock of all the ways literature has affected the world. There are a ton of influential people who claim fictional stories as the impetus for their work. Elon Musk once cited Iain M. Banks’ Culture series as a major source of inspiration for his numerous projects. And for better or worse there’s no shortage of powerful people who model their beliefs on the novels of Ayn Rand. But, on a more grounded level, there’s also an entire publishing industry built on helping people change, and while the great majority of it operates from the cynical notion that life-altering advice can be packaged and sold, there’s also plenty of examples where this idea that a book can change your life has actually turned out to be true…

Self-Help Books

When you think about significant life changes you probably imagine an unexpected turn of events, such as a car accident or an unexpected promotion, but a lot of people who go through a shift in perspective might actually have been looking for one before it happened. After all, depression and malaise are common enough problems in modern life and when you feel like you’re stagnating it can be especially beneficial to look for support in the form of a self-help book.

The publishing industry produces an enormous amount of advice on about every subject you can think of, and while these self-help books are sometimes written in a transparent attempt to cash in on vulnerable people, many of them get made from an honest desire to help. There are thousands of people who’ve lost weight because of Tim Ferris, celebrated their ah-ha moment because of Oprah Winfrey, or found the courage to start a new business because of the motivational lessons of Tony Robbins. That said, these are all fairly straightforward cases of people benefiting from guidance on particular lifestyle issues. And you’re probably a lot more likely to achieve the kind of epiphany you’d describe as, “Life-changing,” when you explore more literary oriented forms of encouragement, with, say, a book like Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist.

The Literary Inspiration Field

There’s something very mysterious about how a person’s view of the world can be reoriented through a potent mixture of narrative and metaphor. By way of example, consider that old question of whether the glass is half empty or glass half full. There are people who’ll define their entire being by how they see it, so you can imagine what a revelation it would be for them to have it switched around. The fantastic thing about fiction is that it can actually do this by taking the reader on a journey from Point-A where the glass is half empty to Point-B where the glass is half full.

More often than not this kind of turnabout is used to produce an emotional reaction in a reader by getting them to identify with the journey of the novel’s protagonist. Nonetheless, it’s an incredibly sophisticated tool that some writers have used for the expressed purpose of inspiring life-changing shifts in behaviour.

Chances are you know somebody who’s been greatly moved by a book that was crafted to alter their mindset. The aforementioned Alchemist by Paola Coehlo has sold over sixty-five million copies and been translated into the most amount of languages for any living author, and this is mostly down to the promise that it will instil you with a deep sense of self-confidence and in many cases actually make good on that promise. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach is an equally evocative story that’s inspired many people to forge their own paths, and while these two books are certainly very different from one another, a lot of the power they have in common comes from the fact that they’re not necessarily giving you a set of instructions on how to fix a particular issue. Rather, they each utilise a basic narrative that allows you to experience their metaphors in such a way that they can be applied to just about any obstacle in life.

Of course, this kind of personal revelation can obviously have a massive effect on a person’s sense of self, but sometimes the biggest changes don’t occur when you’re taught how to feel empowered; they come about when you start to understand the people around you.

The Empathy Generating Machine

Roger Ebert once said that movies were empathy generating machines. And while he was clearly only focused on cinema when he said it, I don’t doubt he would have agreed that novels have fulfilled that role too.

One of the most fundamental problems with the world is that we really don’t understand each other. Sure, to a certain extent we can relate to the people close to us, but by the nature of how our culture has evolved, we’re essentially encouraged to build bubbles around ourselves and not look outside of them except for when we’re forced to. This can lead to a lot of suspicion about the cultures and people outside of our immediate vicinity, but fiction has often been a surprisingly profound way to expand our sense of community.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison helped many people to understand racism and to sympathise with those who suffer from it, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck humanised the people who suffered from an economic crash, and countless other books have highlighted issues of mental illness that most other forms of media would shy away from. All of this is to say, it can be a seriously life-altering transformation to acknowledge the reality of people you might usually ignore and fiction is one of the very best tools for enabling you to do this.

Of course, as the conversation on the topic evolves, it’s been pointed out that empathy in this respect can sometimes be used as a kind of mindless self-indulgence. More specifically, just because a story managed to pull your heartstrings, it doesn’t mean you’ll be prompted into any real-world action. And while I think this kind of criticism can come off as painfully cynical, it’s also important to acknowledge how many more lives can be changed when you take into account the issue of representation.

Developing a sense of empathy for those outside of your bubble might be a pivotal change for you, but that doesn’t mean it will be for anybody else. For people who don’t often get to enjoy fiction written from their particular viewpoint, it can be far more of a revelation to discover stories that have been created from the same lived experience they’ve had. And as the media landscape opens up to embrace more perspectives, there’s plenty of reason to hope there might be a far wider variety of fiction that’s able to affect more people’s lives in the future.

Rewiring Brains

Still, you’d be doing books a disservice to say that they only exist to help you feel a deeper sense of empathy or to help you feel empowered. Anguish, pain, hatred and disgust can all be illustrated in novels for no other reason than to demonstrate the fact of their existence. And the act of recognising these terrible states of being as a reality and accepting them as apart of yourself can be life changing in and of itself.

A study from a team of scholars at the University of Toronto once suggested that people who are in the habit of reading literary fiction are much more open-minded and capable of accepting ambiguity. Obviously literary fiction doesn’t draw in as many readers as a more commercial genre would, but it’s fascinating to think that stories like The Road by Cormac McCarthy can have the same gradual effect on you that something like a mindful meditation might. Over time, fiction and your interaction with it essentially has the power to rewire your brain in both subtle and complex ways. 

At the end of the day I think it’s the effect of this long exposure to fiction that’s the most inspiring. Sure, you can probably compile a list of five or so books that had a dramatic influence on you at a particular turning point in your life, but I think the single most important way books can make an impact on you is simply by having them as companions through every stage. They might not always give you a jolt that encourages you down a certain fork in the road, but as they collect as a library in your subconscious, you’ll probably be changed in ways you can’t exactly put your finger on.

This is a bit of a non sequitur, but when I wonder about how people have suddenly had epiphanies, I often end up thinking back on Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol when he was faced with the ghosts of his dead business partners. Initially, he blames the sight of them on some undercooked food he might have eaten that day. As the story progresses this obviously isn’t the case, but considering it objectively there’s no reason to think that a strong case of food poisoning wouldn’t have been a perfectly reasonable explanation. Similarly, the books we take into ourselves can have an equally visceral effect. You might not realise it, but an epiphany you’re going to have ten years from now could relate back to a book you read a long time ago.

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Simon Fay

Simon Fay

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