As a bookseller and book lover, one of the most common things I’m faced with is a customer’s or friend’s reluctance to venture into new literary territories, whether genre, style, or subject. I do understand this; my own world has been rather narrow as time and money have become more precious and I find myself increasingly comfortable with what I know and trust already. At the same time, though, I worry about this. I don’t want to live an existence so small that I’m missing out on discovering new loves or entering exciting discussions, especially when, as such a passionate person, I’m always thinking there has to be more to life, to me, than this.
Reading, as most of us already know, but also the act of writing, does not have a singular purpose. Both are creative; neither is meant solely to entertain or provide escape. It is also meant to expand our minds, to edify, to educate, to provoke thought and stimulate dialogue, to facilitate connection—and that’s whether or not it’s Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein or Roth’s Divergent. In writing we grow because the process is also an act of discovering more about ourselves, how we think, what we fear, what we’re capable of. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
How we read—that is, how we interpret a text, whether novel, short story, or non-fiction—is also very telling about who we are. So is what we choose and what we refuse to read. When I first had the idea for the YOSS table at the bookstore where I work, it was met with such skepticism I thought they were going to ask that I make a different display. I was told no one likes short stories so no one would buy off the table, that we never sold them, and I conceded, since whenever I suggested short stories, people said they didn’t like them. However, I love them, and I wanted to change people’s minds because I think they’re missing out. Now, two months later, we’re still regularly restocking that table!
This is what I mean: if we can get past our assumptions, our fears, even our preferences, often we find ourselves with something more to talk about. We go from reading whatever everyone else is reading to cutting our own path, to telling people what awesome new things we’ve discovered. What starts with Sarah Selecky becomes Jessica Westhead, Matthew Trafford, Lydia Davis, Edna O’Brien, Carolyn Black, Robin Black, Julie Booker, Jessica Grant, Sam Martin, Raymond Carver, John Cheever…and suddenly novels aren’t the only books we have to choose from if fiction is our thing. Maybe we also start to read essays. Maybe we’re even inspired to write, too. Now we’re not so limited. Now we understand our fellow readers with different tastes, interests, viewpoints.
I went to a Christian university, and in my postmodern lit class, there was a novel on the syllabus at least one student refused to read. Having grown up in a relatively and thankfully uncensored literary world at home (excepting the time my mother rendered asunder with uncharacteristically brute force a formidable copy of Stephen King’s IT, citing it as garbage…which I decline to comment on now), I was shocked by the refusal to read Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage. (I loved it!) The idea of refusing to read something because it might not or doesn’t jive with your world view is both ignorant and close-minded. One cannot effectively or persuasively defend one’s faith (in this case) if one knows only one’s own side. Dialogue, understanding, acceptance, knowledge, growth, ideas—all these things are born out of acknowledging both sides, or all sides, of any issue. Blinders prevent you from contributing anything of real value.
Today, my friend Amanda, a writer I know only online but whom I greatly admire for many reasons and in whom I’ve found a kindred spirit, posted this on her blog Waiting for An Echo: “I’ve shared a world with them [she’s talking about previously unknown creatures exposed by the 2004 tsunami], and neither of us knew it. Who knows what else lies in the world, waiting to be discovered?”
Indeed! When we’re not open to reading suggestions, what worlds, what characters, what stories, and what skilled writing, regardless of genre, are we missing out on? Because of several publishers offering me books to review and so many customers sharing their enthusiasm for a book and so many new bookish friends online, I’ve changed. I’ve gone from saying no to things they and customers enthusiastically suggest to saying, what the hell, I’ll try it. I’ve learned that I don’t have to fear losing precious time, because in the face of so many excellent books, I’ve stopped forcing myself to get through ones I don’t like. Saying yes more to stories I fear, whether because I fear my emotional reaction (e.g., Water for Elephants, Marley & Me, etc.) or because I am reluctant to set myself up for disappointment, has also spread to the rest of my life. And that’s aside from the new interests and knowledge I’ve gained: now I say yes to more things in general, because whatever those things are, I’m usually proven wrong in my assumption I won’t like it.
Since university and getting married, I admit my world has become increasingly small and exclusive and comfortable. I’m growing old before my time and often have to remind myself I’m only 37. At the same time, life has become less satisfying and I’m more restless. I want more. To be more, to know more, to be able to discuss more, to do more, to be readier for opportunity, should something awesome in the book world come my way. I want to be some kind of champion. I dislike not knowing what people are talking about. I hate not knowing a book, and worse, constantly saying, no I haven’t read it but I hear it’s great! I know I can’t read everything, but agreeing to read The Help, for instance, in which I have no interest, may not only educate me but open up a world of dialogue with so many others who’ve read it and enjoyed it. I may change in some way from having read it. Just as I’m changing from simply saying, yes, I’ll try it—whatever it is. There is nothing to lose.
Even if you’re disappointed, that act of saying yes allows you to form an educated opinion. It also suggests freedom—from yourself. If you’re not disappointed, think of what you’ve gained; nothing comes without leaving its mark, even in some small way. It’s as they say when you’re trying on a wedding dress: you may not like it on the rack, but try it on anyway. You could be surprised. The dress you think is ugly, or not you, could very well be the one.
Books change people’s lives—that’s a fact. Saying yes to more of them gives you not only numerous opportunities to change but also increasing options as to how.