Today’s post takes us back to where the blog started. BACK to BOOKS!
Earlier this week I started reading C. S. Lewis The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes. It is a lovely, compact book in which editors David C. Downing and Michael S. Maudlin collected Lewis’s writings from various places on the topic of reading. I read the first selection in the book which they entitled “Why We Read.” And then, as I often find myself doing with the words of C. S. Lewis, I stopped and reread it a couple of times. I contemplated this short passage that was originally published in the epilogue to An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis captured many of my own thoughts about why I read. I had already been working on this post and found that he was talking about some of the same things I wanted to share. I want to quote the whole selection here, but I’ll settle for the peppering of quotes that will support a point I’m making.
Lewis describes why people read and certainly captured my desire. “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.” Many of the famous quotes about reading talk of going on adventures without the expense or danger (or in my case inconveniences like lack of AC or plumbing). Others extol the advantages of living multiple lives. And still more remind us that the ability to disappear into a book can take us to places we’ve never been, allow us to live in the past or in the future, and to travel through time and place without the long lines and discomfort of air travel. If we read, we know that we become lifelong learners. Another plus of the reading life is that we not only grow our minds, we often grow our hearts and our ability to be compassionate and empathic. Sometimes I feel like I have met new friends when I can connect with a character or an author and feel, “Wow! It isn’t just me!”
In the same writing, Lewis says that “Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself” and points out that without looking for another perspective, “We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distances.” By reading of people living in far flung places or even those whose American experiences are far different than mine and whose lives have been influenced by things outside of my experiences, I alter my mindset and broaden my world. Reading from the point of view of others expands my understanding of people and the world. Often it is through fiction or through someone’s memoir that I fully take in and understand events in our world and the experiences of others.
Let me explain in a couple examples how reading has expanded my world view, my empathy and my compassion.
I have listened to journalists and historians discussing the clash between the Sunni and Shia in Islamic culture. I also took the initiative to look up what the clash is about. I found it very disturbing to know that all of this killing, violence and hatred began with a disagreement of an element of theology. That gave me the brain knowledge of the differences, but not a way to feel it and the ways it affects daily living.
It wasn’t until reading novels that I could feel and empathize with the everyday people — the children, the families, the ordinary citizens — in the Islamic countries and see how their lives are impacted by being there. Khaled Hosseini’s books The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns brought me into the lives of two children and two women respectively torn apart and living under the thumb of an oppressive, theocratic system. I vividly remember that as I was reading A Thousand Splendid Suns I was also watching stories on television about attacks carried out by Islamic terrorists. I was torn. On the one hand, I was fully involved and invested in these characters. On the other hand, I wanted to be fully judgmental and not understand them as humans. I kept shutting the book. Not seeing or understanding allows for hatred and anger, and I was angry.
In the end, Hosseini’s characters were more impactful. They were individuals who don’t make the news. I know how often I see stories of others whose lives are like mine — teachers on the news because they are not the normal, caring and professional teachers I knew, parents who abuse instead of love, people who carry out all other acts of violence. Reading The Librarian of Basra and years later picking up The Stationary Shop showed me Islamic women who were interested in the same things I am, but who are living under very different circumstances, cultural and religious views, and societal rules.
All of these books offered me the opportunity now to meet the Muslim women I see weekly on a different plain. The ones I meet are immigrants here. While some people are likely to be afraid of them or harbor prejudices about them, I can look at them and wonder what horror or what situation made you leave your life and the people you loved to start over in a land where you don’t speak the language, your degrees and certifications may be useless, and you don’t have the network of support from family and friends. I am able to take a breath and pause when they are not behaving the way Americans are supposed to. I don’t scream at women who aren’t disciplining their little boys as I would like them to do. I know they are ordinary women who love their families and want to make a decent life here.
That example is one where I knew ahead of time how clueless I was. This second one recounts a different experience. It is one of my being smug and thinking I knew more that I did.
I am well read in the works of Black authors. Some of my favorite authors include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, James McBride, Lucille Clifton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, and Jason Reynolds. Not a student went through my classroom without knowing of my love for Maya Angelou — the writer and the woman. I believed I understood the plight of Blacks in America. I was proud of my lack of prejudice, of my willingness to have an open heart for all people regardless of color or background unless they give me a reason to walk away. But I also found that I was put off when people of color would talk about “white privilege.” I smiled and didn’t respond, but inside I was thinking, “What privilege? What the hell? Nobody gave me anything extra for being white. When do I get some benefits of that?”
I was born in the 1950s and lived with relatives who were quite prejudiced. I heard the language and the stereotypes. We weren’t in the deep south with the obvious signage, but I knew that there were clubs, swimming pools, and neighborhoods where only whites were allowed. I was well aware of the fact that people of color were often not accepted to colleges or hired for jobs. I knew about and understood prejudice and what would be called racial profiling today. I knew it and was outraged by it. Growing up a woman in that time, I also had obstacles to overcome that were unfair and never based on merit. I had the job where the men with the same education and experience were paid more because “they will have to support a family” and I would “probably get pregnant and quit.” So I was sure I more than understood. I empathized! It never dawned on me that the same rules that allowed for them to be marginalized allowed for me (even as a woman) to get more and have more advantages because of the system that kept others back.
It was while reading The Hate U Give that I had the realization of what white privilege is and a start to getting the many ways in which I was on the receiving end of it. At its simplest, white privilege allows me to walk around without thinking about race. I had a friend who actually summed up our experience one night many years ago. We went to Baltimore to hear Maya Angelou perform with Ashford and Simpson. As we were sitting in the theatre awaiting the show in an audience where we were in the minority, she said to me, “You know I hardly ever think about being white.” We only thought about it when we were called to notice it.
My parents taught me to be respectful and not argue with a police officer who pulled me over because, if I wasn’t, I would be more likely to get a ticket or not be given a break. It never occurred to me that there were families who had to teach their children to be afraid of that encounter and how to come away without being hauled off to jail or shot. I have never been pulled over for being in the “wrong” place. I have never been followed automatically upon entering a store. I knew that my mother-in-law did that in her store to any people of color, but I thought it was just her and her prejudices. I guess I didn’t see beyond that or realize that it was common because I wouldn’t have done it but more likely it was because I hadn’t experienced it!
There is a difference between knowing the historical Black experience in this country and understanding with empathy how that history is still being lived out in this country. C. S. Lewis wrote, “In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are.” In reading Angie Thomas’s book, I experienced it as I got lost in the characters and story. I found the facts as they are. A friend once asked me if I thought that the kinds of things described in Thomas’s book or stories you see on the news happen as routinely as they make them sound. Yes. I believe that the experiences described from so many from across the country cannot be discounted because we haven’t seen or experienced them. That’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it?
I have to admit that I am quick to be outraged and slow to understand. Some of my understanding of the white privilege I live with came from my niece’s experiences. She angrily recounted an incident to me. There had been a crime nearby. Her husband was stopped coming home and asked what he was doing in their own neighborhood while his white buddy following him was not. I didn’t see the white privilege in this until much later. I was more outraged that her family, and thus my family, was being profiled and mistreated than I was in realizing the ways in which the buddy was lucky.
I once won a prize from a local Civil Rights group for a unit of study I wrote for my high school juniors. In the unit they had many choices of what they could read. They had different groupings of stories and authors to choose from, and then they were asked a set of questions regarding the pieces they read. The stories were selected very carefully not only on their literary merit but also on another criteria. Some involved people from America who lived in widely divergent areas: in the heart of New York or Chicago or in rural America on a farm, small towns in the midwest, Appalachia, the southwest, or the deep south. Other sets included stories of Americans from varying cultural backgrounds: Immigrants, Hispanics, Blacks, Jews, Muslims, etc. The questions asked them to compare and contrast the writing as well as the settings, events, and characters. One of the questions they had to ponder was whether the story was universal. I purposely had chosen stories that were, but I had the students respond to what made the stories different than the lives they were living and what was true for everyone, everywhere, at any time so that they could come to the realization on their own that, as Maya Angelou always said, “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
Even without a full understanding on my part, I think that my effort there was worthwhile. Starting to see the humanity and the common, human experiences of people who live differently than you do is the beginning. For many of the students I had in that time and place, that was a big jump. They would look at me in dismay that I would have actually lived in a city and liked it! That was foreign for them. So waking them up a little was a good thing. I would go at it from a different perspective today and do better. I’d introduce them to Starr Carter and her family — a teenager and her family dealing with their realities and wanting the same things we all want.
I look for books that will show me things I don’t know. I want to learn about other cultures, religions, countries, and experiences. I can learn a great deal from a nonfiction book on Islamic culture, the Catholic experiences, Jim Crow laws, apartheid, or whatever. Those books can also give me head knowledge without heart knowledge. One without the other is only partial, incomplete. I have found that fiction and memoir give me a fuller view with some head knowledge along with heart knowledge.
The reading list below has some books I would recommend to broaden your understanding and compassion for others. These books will open your eyes to the lives of people from other countries. They will give you a glimpse of what city dwellers have to deal with or what it’s like to live out in the boonies. Some will help you to join in the black, immigrant, Hispanic, homosexual, Jewish, female, or Muslim experience in America. You’ll be able to be on the inside of the life of those struggling with learning disabilities, autism, or a history of abuse. It is certainly not an exhaustive list. But you have to start somewhere!
SOME BOOKS THAT GAVE ME A NEW PERSPECTIVE & MADE ME SEE THE WORLD MORE CLEARLY:
- Adiche, Chimamanda Ngozi – We Should All Be Feminists
- Adiche, Chimamanda Ngozi – Half of a Yellow Sun
- Alexie, Sherman – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
- Alexie, Sherman – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
- Alexie, Sherman – You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
- Anderson, Laurie Halse – Speak
- Anderson, Laurie Halse – Shout
- Beah, Ishmael – A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
- Cisneros, Sandra – The House on Mango Street
- Conroy, Pat – The Water is Wide
- Ford, Jamie – The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
- Green, John – Will Grayson, Will Grayson
- Haddon, Mark – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
- Hall, Ron & Denver Moore – Same Kind of Different as Me
- Hosseini, Khaled – The Kite Runner
- Hosseini, Khaled – A Thousand Splendid Suns
- House, Silas – Clay’s Quilt
- Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki – Farewell to Manzanar
- Jones, Tayari – An American Marriage
- Kamali, Marian – The Stationery Shop
- Kingsolver, Barbara – The Bean Trees
- Lewis, John Robert – March (Book One, Book Two, and Book Three)
- McBride, James – The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
- McCormick, Pat – Sold
- Nafisi, Azar – Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
- Newman, Lesléa – October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shephard
- Noah, Trevor – Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood
- O’Brien, Tim – The Things They Carried
- Palacio, R. J. – Wonder
- Payne, Ruby K. – Bridges Out of Poverty
- Rusesabagina, Paul – An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda
- Shetterly, Margot Lee – Hidden Figures
- Thomas, Angie – The Hate U Give
- Woodson, Jacqueline – Brown Girl Dreaming
- Yousafzai, Malala – I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood up for Education and Changed the World
PICTURE BOOKS/CHILDREN’S BOOK
- Applegate, Katherine – Wishtree
- Byers, Grace – I Am Enough
- Castillo, Lauren – Nana in the City
- Choy, Yangsook – The Name Jar
- Clotilde, Perrin – At the Same Moment, Around the World
- de la Pena, Matt – Last Stop on Market Street
- Deedy, Carmen Agra – 14 Cows for America
- Erdrich, Louis – The Birchbark House
- Glaser, Karina Yan – The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
- House, Silas – The Same Sun Here (written with Neela Vaswani)
- Hunt, Lynda Mullaly – Fish in a Tree
- Lai, Thanhha – Inside Out & Back Again
- Martin, Ann M. – Rain Reign
- Parr, Todd – It’s Okay to Be Different
- Parr, Todd – The Family Book
- Palacio, R. J. – Wonder
- Polacco, Patricia – The Junkyard Wonders
- Polacco, Patricia – Thank You, Mr. Falker
- Polacco, Patricia – Christmas Tapestry
- Polacco, Patricia – Chicken Sunday
- Polacco, Patricia – Just Plain and Fancy
- Polacco, Patricia – In Our Mothers’ House
- Robinson, Sharon – Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson
- Rylant, Cynthia – Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story
- Weatherford, Carole Boston – Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression
- Winter, Jeanette – The Librarian of Basra
- Winter, Jonah – Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx
- Woodson, Jacqueline – Show Way
- Woodson, Jacqueline – Brown Girl Dreaming
- Yousafzai, Malala – Malala’s Magic Pencil
- Yousafzai, Malala – I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (written with Patricia McCormick)