I read to become a woman. I read to become a Native American, and I read to become a Russian during the age of Czars. I read to become poor, and I read to become a Nazi and a Jewish girl hiding in an attic in occupied Amsterdam. Reading is a way of being. In Seattle a couple of weeks ago, I participated in a discussion in which we discussed writing from the point of view of a persona, someone clearly not the “author” of a poem, and we discussed the power of this to foster empathy in the mind of the writer. Granted, we were discussing writing, but reading and writing are part and parcel of the same thing, and I believe that reading also fosters this ability to empathize on the part of the reader.
A number of years ago, in the context of some long-forgotten conversation, I was made aware of a concept referred to as “the primacy of the image.” The term addresses, as I understand it, the fact that humans, as a species in general (I am not talking about myself of course), are, well, lazy. We strive endlessly to do more with less, to get more for less, and to accomplish things with less effort expended. This is just the way the human brain is programmed–toward the conservation of energy. Easier is better. More for less is always better. At any rate, “primacy of the image” was explained as referring to the phenomenon of the power that images have. We would rather “watch” than read and have to interpret. But what we gain in time saved also comes with a price.
I believe that this phenomenon is antithetical to empathy and compassion on some level. When we “see” something, we are one step removed from “being” that thing. It’s happening to someone else. It’s happening outside of us. It’s “them,” not “us.” Reading, in this regard, works differently. I ask my students what happens internally when they are reading a novel or a short story and they tell me that a type of “internal” film plays. This “film” engages not only their senses of sight and hearing, but all the senses. In reading, ALL of our senses are engaged, and it happens inside of us. We see and hear and smell and taste and feel. Consequently, reading is a much more holistic and personal activity than watching a film or even playing a video. It allows us to become. It allows us to be. It allows us to be wizards if we are muggles, men if we are women, women if we are men, Muslims if we are Christians. And maybe that’s what this world needs: the ability of people to empathize, the ability to become “another” more completely. So read. Read to be. Read to become another. Read to save the world.