Whenever people ask me why I'm such a huge nerd, I don't even skip a beat before putting all the blame on my mom. Not that I'm ungrateful, of course. Before I'd even learned how to say "dada", my mom was reading aloud to me, pointing out letters and sounding out words. I was obviously too young to have any remaining memories of this, but according to her, I was hooked on books and words long before I could even read.
Children experience numerous benefits when their parents read aloud to them, including stimulated language and cognitive skills and a larger vocabulary that can be observed as early as age three.
As it turns out, my awesome mom was on to something: According to studies by the Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., children experience numerous benefits when their parents read aloud to them, including stimulated language and cognitive skills and a larger vocabulary that can be observed as early as age three. When I was a kid, I didn't care a whole lot about any of that, but what I did care about was reading. I'd come home from the library carrying a stack of books so tall that I'd have to keep it steady with my chin. I blew through tests in class as fast as I could just so I could have the extra time to read while everyone else was finishing up. I was constantly among the top performers in the Accelerated Reading program for my grade, but not because I tried to be. I just really, really liked books.
She raised me well, in part because she allowed books to raise me, too.
Throughout it all, my mom was the most supportive parent a young book nerd could hope for. She'd lie in bed with me and read with me before I went to bed, making me swear that we'd stop when we got to the end of a chapter and then reluctantly agreeing to just one more when I confessed that I'd already read the beginning of the following chapter on the adjacent page. She spent what I now realize was probably way too much money on the books that I just had to have when the book fair came to my school. She never bothered me when I'd spend an entire weekend holed up in my room when the newest Harry Potter book came out. She raised me well, in part because she allowed books to raise me, too.
Perhaps it's an unfair stereotype, but I feel like the kids who were as obsessed with books as I was aren't usually the type to get into trouble. Sure, part of it is because they spend so much time reading that there's just not enough room for crazy teenage parties or smashing up mailboxes with a baseball bat, but I really think there's more to it than that. Being a book nerd helped me see the world from hundreds of different perspectives. I got inside the minds of not only authors, but their characters. When you read book after book after book, you see life from the eyes of people of all races, ages, shapes, and sizes. You experience a taste of what it's like to be a veterinarian or a criminal, maybe someone who's deaf, maybe someone who's not human at all. No matter who you are or where you come from, you learn that not everyone experiences life the way you do when you open a book.
I can understand my fellow humans a little better than I would if I hadn't read about so many similar characters growing up.
Now that I'm officially a real-live grownup, I have a greater appreciation for the impact that my childhood full of books had on my growing brain. I'm very far from being perfect, but at the very least, I can understand my fellow humans a little better than I would if I hadn't read about so many similar characters growing up. When you hear numbers and statistics paired with the word "people" in the news, it's hard to make it feel real. As a ten-year-old, I couldn't understand the magnitude of what had happened when 2,996 people were killed on 9/11. But the Baudelaire children from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events helped little me sympathize with all the children who had lost parents that terrible day. As I got older and started to learn more about issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault, it blew my mind a little that although 33 percent of women in the world had experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives, I didn't know anyone who had gone through such a terrible thing... or more accurately, they hadn't told me about it. When I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, though, it struck me just how terrible this statistic was since it was now happening to a person — a character — that was close to my heart.
As a kid, reading books was a pastime. As an adult, it turned into a form of therapy. But the unintended consequences of my literary addiction are seen more in what they did to me rather than what they did for me. Thanks to books, I can sympathize with people even though my own life experiences may not allow me to fully empathize with them. Because I've stuck my nose in so many worlds — both real and fantastical — I now have a more open, curious mind when I visit new places in real life. Not only that, but I can better see how a person's environment shapes them and creates the fascinating cultural differences that exist between different neighborhoods or different countries. The books I read in my youth became a hammer and chisel that carved me into the kind of person that little me would have rooted for if I were a character in one of her books.
If there's a kid in your life that you care about, please read to them. Read with them. Buy them books. Turn reading into something that they enjoy rather than something they feel like they have to do to pass Language Arts class. I would never dare say that reading is more important than playing with friends or learning a new sport, but if you know a kid who spends all of Saturday locked in their room with nothing but a good story to occupy their time, let them be. Whether they know it or not, they're creating a better future for themselves and the rest of the world.
Images: Averi Clements