To Learn To Read Is To Light A Fire

With bushfires raging across the vast continent of Australia the words of Victor Hugo take on added meaning.

“To learn to read is to light a fire.”

Victor Hugo

Australia has been experiencing a severe drought, fuel loads are high and there have been days of extreme temperature. These conditions pose a serious threat and Fire Services have been quick to issue acute fire danger warnings.

Preparing for the fire season requires months of planning. Given that there are always fires, the focus is on what is needed to manage the inevitable. This year, some of the larger fires have been described as ‘unpredictable’ and ‘unstoppable.’

Reading is like that too. It is unpredictable and unstoppable.

When we turn the pages of a book, we don’t know what awaits. There are always surprises in the story line, unexpected diversions, transporting us to places we would never have chosen. Science fiction author Neil Gaiman says,

“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” 

Some books draw us in, and we lose all sense of time. We become so absorbed in what we are reading, we don’t hear the things going on around us.

Fire is not just a destructive force. It is also beneficial. In areas where the soil is impoverished, fire can release nutrients, stimulating plant growth.

Similarly, reading releases in us the potential to prosper, but there is a proviso. We must choose wisely. Good books make better people.

Reading has a significant number of benefits.  Here are three to consider:

(1) Reading fires the imagination

Reading provides a glimpse into the mind of the writer. It exposes us to other people’s experiences and insights. It opens a vast array of opportunities.

Reading stimulates our imagination, transporting us to worlds that never were, freeing us to create new worlds of our own, where anything is possible.  

Paul Heavenridge is the executive director of Literacyworks. He says,

“Reading broadens our imagination by stimulating the right side of our brain. It literally opens our minds to new possibilities and new ideas helping us experience and analyse the world through others’ lives.”  

(2) Reading promotes empathy

Reading fiction helps expand our empathy for others. And what is ‘empathy?’ It is the ability to understand someone else’s point of view. It allows us to feel and imagine the experiential world of others.

Author of ‘On Reading Well’, Karen Swallow Prior says,

“Reading literary fiction cultivates empathy. This is because literary fiction—which shows rather than tells—requires readers to make the same kind of predictions, assessments, and evaluations we must make every day in real life.”

Our attempts at being empathetic are enhanced because we are better placed to understand the complexities of experience.

(3) Reading stimulates regeneration

While the immediate impact of bush fires can be devastating on both the environment and people who are affected by the damage, long term it can help replenish and revitalise the Australian bush. Many native plants are stimulated to reproduce following a fire. Senior park rangers have witnessed this cycle of growth, destruction and regeneration.

People who have experienced the catastrophic fires know what it is to lose everything. Properties, livestock, businesses, infrastructure, communities, and in some instances the death of loved ones and friends. Words are inadequate to describe the devastation and trauma.

But the experience of ‘going through the fire’ has a broader application. There are other people who know what it is to have their lives turned upside down, to feel robbed of everything that is important, to know the desolation that accompanies loss. It might an unexpected illness, a financial disaster, or the tragic death of a loved one.

But like the Australian bush we are blessed with the means to regenerate. Courage and determination are part of who we are. We find strength in our shared suffering. And our hope can be restored by reading stories of others who have endured a similar fate, who have found that new life emerges from the ashes. Reading has the power to change lives.

Some of us are inclined to limit our reading capability. We forget, ‘reading is transportable.’ It doesn’t matter where we are, we can read. Best-selling author Ryan Holiday says,

“Wherever we are, we can read. In the corner of a quiet room. Standing in a subway car with headphones in and an audiobook on. In the evening while winding the kids down for bed. While we lay in our own beds before turning out the light.”  

There is one thing about reading we must never overlook. Reading enables connection, allowing us to feel that we are part of something bigger. It provides linkages, where our presence is acknowledged and valued.

C.S. Lewis says’

“We read to know that we are not alone.”

C. S. Lewis

Reading is informative, challenging our opinions, expanding our understanding, cultivating our character, making us stronger.

The quotes I have chosen, illustrate the importance of reading in firing imagination, promoting empathy and stimulating regeneration. They come from the 10 best books I read in 2019.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo – Christy Lefteri

Where there are bees there are flowers, and where there are flowers there is new life and hope.

A Single Thread – Tracey Chevalier

Do you know, Miss Speedwell, sewing can be so therapeutic when one has had trauma? The bold colours and the repetition of simple stitches has such a soothing effect. There is something about creating a thing of beauty that works wonders on your nerves.

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

People always said Ove and Ove’s wife were like night and day. Ove realised full well, of course, that he was the night.

He never understood why she chose him. She only loved abstract things like music and books and strange words. Ove was a man entirely filled with tangible things. He liked screwdrivers and oil filters. He went through life with his hands firmly shoved into his pockets. She danced.

‘You only need one ray of light to chase all the shadows away,’ she said to him once, when he asked her why she had to be so upbeat the whole time.

Apparently, some monk called Francis had written as much in one of her books.

Silver – Chris Hammer

Thirty-three years later Martin Scarsden drives, driving into memory, driving down toward Port Silver…part of him is lost in the past, lost in that perfect day, the day when fate flared so brightly and so briefly, the same day it dropped a curtain upon them, like the end of a play. He cannot see the ocean but senses it, knows that should he pull over he would be able to see it: the Pacific. It’s there, beyond the trees, the great blue expanse. ‘Can you see the sea?’ his father asks through the years, just as he asked it each and every time they descended through these hairpin corners. ‘See the sea, get home free,’ he’d say with a laugh.

A Philosophy of Walking – Frederic Gros

Walking is to experience these quietly and humbly insistent realities – the tree growing between rocks, the watchful bird, the streamlet finding its course – without expecting anything. Walking makes the rumors and complaints fall suddenly silent, stops the ceaseless interior chatter through which we comment on others, evaluate ourselves, recompose, interpret.

Educated – Tara Westover

My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

The Librarian of Auschwitz – Antonio Iturbe

It wasn’t an extensive library. In fact, it consisted of eight books, and some of them were in poor condition. But they were books. In this incredibly dark place, they were a reminder of less somber times, when words rang out more loudly than machine guns.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

I hadn’t been at school since the day before my mother died and as long as I stayed away her death seemed unofficial somehow. But once I went back it would be a public fact. Worse: the thought of returning to any kind of normal routine seemed disloyal, wrong.

The Stationary Shop of Tehran – Marjan Kamali

Crinkled, blackened pages of books fluttered out of the flames. They floated in the air, suspended for a minute, and then dissolved as black ash when they hit the ground.

One day she might forget the helplessness of standing there while words burned. One day she might be far away from this terror. But the smell of charred paper would always be part of her, embedded in her skin.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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