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While friends were making resolutions to welcome 2020, I found myself looking back into 2019. It had been a tough year, and part of me wanted to dismiss anything good that could have happened in the last twelve months. But then I remembered something—the books I had read.

Lately, books have been a buoy, allowing me to enter into other people’s stories when the tendency has been to fixate on my own. I found it a meaningful exercise to record the books I had spent time with in the past year. On the first day of 2020, I took time to document my reading journey from January to December 2019. In a journal, I wrote the title of each book, notes about why I chose the book, and what I learned. Reflecting on my reading diet allowed me to see 2019 through a more dynamic lens.

Looking back on my log, a major theme that emerged in my reading was that of looking for home. Characters grappled with dislocation and what home meant—for some, a particular place meant home; for others, it was the people in their lives that created home. As I’m in a stage in life where I’m asking similar questions about what home means, my book choices—Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and Death Comes for the Archbishop, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, to name a few—offered touchstones for what I was thinking about and what was important to me during that part of the year.

The relationality of reading

In a culture where the productivity mentality dominates, I find that books offer places where I can creatively think outside of myself and indirectly work through my problems. In her book The Reader, the Text, the Poem, professor Louise M. Rosenblatt notes this aspect of reflection—the ability to be in relationship with one’s reading. Different than the everyday reading we do to gather information, Rosenblatt refers to “aesthetic reading” where “the reader’s attention is centered directly on what he is living through during his relationship with that particular text.” My reading choices offered me the ability to not only reflect on what was happening within the books, but to also consider the connections I could draw between the books and my own life.

The idea that I come into relationship with the text and that my relationship with the text helps make meaning of what I’m reading is something I discovered especially in the books I read in 2019. For example, in what was my first foray into the world of audiobooks, I rediscovered a book I thought I disliked. When I read it in high school, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! just didn’t make sense to me. One scene of bloodshed was the strongest memory I carried with me from the text. In revisiting this book in March (for a Verily article), I discovered the beauty of Cather’s poetic writing style. I also found a kindred spirit in Alexandra Bergen, the book’s heroine. Not only is she a strong woman, but she is also not afraid to reveal her feelings—to fight for justice for a loyal neighbor, to tell a friend she will miss him, to acknowledge her need to be taken care of. That Alexandra could both be strong and vulnerable challenged me to reconsider my relationship with those two attributes. Similarly, when I moved into Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in April, I noted in my log that “I found myself relating uncomfortably to the melancholic and moody [character of Konstantin] Levin.” His moodiness often affected my own mood, making me more aware of the ways in which the tendencies of my personality affect others. By being attentive to the way in which I was interacting with these texts, I began to discover another aspect of reflective reading—empathy.

Reading boosts empathy

Though my reading diet mainly consisted of fiction this past year, the characters I was reading about rang true to me. And the result of reading about them—their joys, sorrows, pitfalls, and virtues—was that I became better able to understand people I was interacting with in my real life.

It would seem that the world of science agrees that there is a connection between reading and empathy. In a 2016 article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, University of Toronto researcher and writer Keith Oatley discusses fiction’s ability to make readers more empathetic:

Fiction is a set of simulations of social worlds that we can compare, as it were stereoscopically, with aspects of our everyday world, to suggest insights we might not achieve by looking with the single eye of ordinary perception. Recent findings indicate that those who engage in such simulations, readers of literary art, which is mostly fiction, have better understandings of other people than those who do not.

In my lifetime, there are only so many environments I can encounter, and only so many people I can meet. Literature exposes me to the thoughts of authors who have insights into environments and people outside my realm of experience. This was poignantly illustrated in my foray into the work of Jhumpa Lahiri. While reading, I found myself wanting to know more about what it means to feel torn between two worlds. Many of Lahiri’s characters are either American-born Indian individuals, or people who have come to America from India and must adjust to the difference between the cultures. I noted in my log that Lahiri’s stories “bruised my heart with their undercurrents of sadness, longing, and dislocation.” Having never experienced this split of self, I appreciated being educated about the pain, loneliness, and joy that can be discovered in this place of “between-ness.” As a result of reading Lahiri, I am now more attuned to this feeling in the English language learners I teach, prompting me to ask more questions about my students’ cultures.

Moving out of a fixed mindset

In some regards, 2019 didn’t feel like my year. But the literature I read tells another story. It was a year of listening in—exploring the worlds of characters who felt dislocated in some way. What the books challenged me to do was to abandon the fixed mindset I had toward my current circumstances—that life will never change, that I’ll always feel rootless and unsettled. I can’t say I’ve totally altered my thinking patterns yet, but reading material like Steinbeck’s East of Eden gave voice to my worries. For example, one of the characters in this novel is afraid that his genetics will predispose him toward a life of evil (because his mother behaves in ways that are monstrous). Part of this character’s journey is discovering that he has a choice whether or not to give in to his violent tendencies. In a similar way, I have a choice in determining how I will live my life and where I will root myself. As I noted in my log for this book, “Who we become is not in the hands of our biology, relationships, or pasts.”

Reading has the ability to empower, and as Oatley says in a 2002 article, to transform. Recording my reading for 2019 has served to call me beyond my current state in life and has encouraged change. The benefits I’ve found in keeping a reading log can be summed up in two words: “another perspective.” This practice has led me to be less centered on myself, and in re-centering on another, I’ve learned not only more about the other, but more about myself. I’m excited to see what kinds of themes, questions, and conversations my 2020 reading will bring.