Ever since I can remember, books have been a big part of my life. Not only have they been my escape, my teachers, and my source of joy, but they’ve also been a way for me to connect with others.
Many people believe that reading is a solitary endeavor, best enjoyed by introverts or those who want to just take a break from other people.
I connected with my mom every night before bed when she read me a book. Even though it was sometimes difficult for us to engage as we struggled through her divorce from my dad and subsequent marriage to a man who treated my brother and me badly, we always had that half hour at night. Those books still provide some of my best memories. The Monster at the End of This Book, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World, and Dr. Seuss hold special places in my heart and I made memories with my own daughter by reading them to her when she was small.
As I got older, I connected with my older brother through Choose Your Own Adventure books, comics (X-Men was always our favorite), and The Dragonlance series, then thrillers by Dean Koontz and Stephen King. My stepmom and I had our first connected moment when we both read and loved Fancy Pants by Susan Elizabeth Phillips when I was in my teens and continued to find common ground by passing beloved books back and forth.
In college, my best friend/roommate and I would pass many companionable evenings reading on the couch together. Even though we didn’t read the same types of books, just the fact that we could sit and be lost in our own worlds together was enough.
Through the good times and the bad, books have helped me learn how to engage with the world and those around me. Eat, Pray, Love was my savior when I was in a toxic relationship and completely lost. I read how the author Elizabeth Gilbert would lay on the floor sobbing because she didn’t want to be in the life she was living. It’s not just me, I remember thinking. Others have been through this and they got out, they healed. Though I’ve never met her, I’ve felt connected to Ms. Gilbert ever since.
As my daughter has grown into her teenage years, books have remained a source of connection with us. Even when she doesn’t want to talk to me or gets in one of her teenage moods, we can still sit together on the deck and read our books, often glancing up to share a line or an insight about a character.
I still connect with my mom, who I only see a handful of times a year now, by sending her books or chatting about something I’ve read that I think she might like. And though my stepmom passed away many years ago, there are still times when I read something and think, “Rhonda would have really liked this.” That’s connection, too.
Books have also been a way for me to find friends as an adult. When I’m talking to someone at a networking event or business meeting and the subject of books comes up, I can feel my heart speed up. Are they a reader? I think. Maybe we can be friends! This has led me to start a book club (where we admittedly drink more wine than read actual books), join another book club (where they actually read the book and thoughtfully discuss it), and develop deep and lasting friendships that will last a lifetime.
So don’t try to tell me that reading is a solitary endeavor. Not only has it led me to innumerable connections and engagements with real people, but it’s also helped me develop empathy and compassion for and connection with thousands of characters I’ve met over the years. Travis, Nora, and Einstein from Dean Koontz’s Watchers, the hilarious lacrosse players from Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks, Roxanne Coss, the lovestruck soprano from Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto…they’re more than just characters to me. They’re people woven into the fabric of my life.
And it’s not just me. Study after study has shown that reading fiction makes us better people by helping us see and understand the perspectives of those different from us. Even if you don’t go to my extreme and consider these characters personal friends, reading about them still helps you develop your worldview and makes you a more understanding and caring individual.
If you’re a reader, you have a golden opportunity to share something with another person that has no equal. So I encourage you not to keep reading as your solitary task or your personal, private hobby. Share a book with someone else. Read to your kids. Join a book club. Talk on social media about the last story you loved or hated. Sit quietly with someone else and get lost in your own separate worlds together. When you see books as a way to engage and connect, your world will open up and the impact could be enormous.