top of page

If you want to achieve an open mind, keep reading.

On the blog The Passive Voice, the author wrote a post called The Wound of Individuality and the Literary Experience. In it, the blogger notes how a member of their book club doubted their ability to understand and give proper sensitivity because gender and ethnicity were not shared with the author.

At first, I too was startled by this brief explanation because I have always believed that reading and/or internalizing other’s stories makes us capable of being empathetic to others. The author of the blog explains their feelings, and I agree with all of it.

bird ruffling feathers
Photo by Boris Smokrovik on Unsplash

This might ruffle a few feathers, but it is okay to just have empathy for someone and not sympathy. I see it often in modern American rhetoric; that if you disagree with someone, then you hate them. Where did that come from, honestly? I’m not okay with alcoholism, and I’ve never struggled to turn down a drink. But that doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with someone who does or celebrates with them in their sobriety. Why should it be necessary to share a commonality with someone to learn more about them? If that were a fundamental truth, what would be the point of socializing/associating with anyone or anything outside of our comfort zone?

To see from a different perspective than the current one we have is the foremost benefit of a story experience.

Reading is, at its baseline is enjoyable for me. I mostly read fiction and fantasy to encounter new worlds and new characters. I read non-fiction to learn new ideas or strengthen old ones. In either scenario is our choice as the reader to encounter a narrative from the author’s point of view so we can expand our understanding of what it is to be human.

A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time—proof that humans can work magic. —Carl Sagan

When we read, we are inviting the author to sit with us to share their thoughts and experiences. If allowed, if affected by what they say, it changes those permanent ideas in our mind; rearranged into something else or something more. This is the beauty of a book. Our own eyes are not enough to see through those of others, and reading is the inventions of others to do just that. You may remain yourself but become someone else entirely. If you’ve never read C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, this is something he talks about.

If you’ve been a reader all your life, then you may not realize how natural it is for you to extend your mind into an author’s work.

To give you another perspective on this, I’m talking about literary analysis. As a concept, context is not perplexing, but it's difficult to apply if we refuse to take the steps in understanding. Culture, news, manners, trends, and language patterns all create the references to establish context. If the author has done their job, then as the reader, it should be possible to gain the correct context for the story. Attempting to read without an awareness absolutely leads to misinterpretation, but understanding has to start somewhere. As a child, I did not know that two plus two equaled four until someone told me it did. Once I had that information, though, I could apply it to other mathematical problems. That same is true of reading.

Should I not read a novel dealing with Arabic history because my entire family tree is European? No. Should I refuse to pick up a book because it discusses the history of slavery from a non-black perspective (slavery and slave-trade is not unique to America)? Absolutely not. Is it wrong for a white man from the Midwest to embrace cultural practices like yoga, even though it didn’t originate there? No.

If we all lived with that mentality, it would only pigeonhole our mindsets and keep us from experiencing fantastic perspectives on life. Commonality with an author is no guarantee that you will understand or agree with their narrative. We are all different and have different points of view, but to believe that you must be of a certain gender or ethnicity to expanding your human experience is quite literally a kiss of death to the human existence. It is narrow-minded.

I’d argue that if you disagree with someone, then at the very least, you’ve first opened your mind to listening to their thoughts and opinions.

Agree with me or don't. You're allowed.



bottom of page