The Five Blessings of Reading

Retiring BYU book reviewer Richard H. Cracroft published, this past summer, a beautiful tribute to the power of reading, titled No Good Stopping Place. We (Revgeorge and I–he suggested I write this post) recommend the entire piece as a worthy read.

At the end of the article, the good Professor lists five blessings of reading. While counting the benefits of reading is not a new idea, Professor Cracroft’s list seems particularly insightful, covering the power of books to “enable us to live more lives than the one allotted” and to “see… solutions where we presently see only dilemmas”. He distills most of the usual benefits such as reduced stress and improved vocabulary into “books sweeten, nourish, brighten, and enrich our lives”, and though not every reader will identify with his #5, most will see some way in which books can aid the spiritual life.

His points #2-4 about empathy, self-ordering, and finding solutions all bring quite a bit of weight to bear on our interpretations of Harry Potter. Much of fan discussion and literary interpretation has focused on the ways in which Harry helps us become better people (John Granger’s comments about being “trained in the stock responses” come to mind) and on understanding and loving the Other; also, Rowling’s own Harvard address spoke of “the power to imagine better” primarily through empathy.

We doubt if any Potter fan would deny having grown in these areas through these books. Which means, of course, that we’ve also found Harry Potter enriching (Professor Cracroft’s point #1), and for those of us who believe, we’ve surely found them helpful in spiritual discernment (#5).

Potential topics for discussion in the comments:

  • What have the books taught you?
  • Would you add anything to Professor Cracroft’s list?
  • What other books have influenced you in these ways?
  • Other thoughts…?

10 thoughts on “The Five Blessings of Reading

  1. What a great post, Jenna! Thank you, and Rev for deciding to begin the conversation. I read the article as well, and thought it painted a beautiful picture. I, too, was an avid reader, stealing moments with any book I possibly could, and now notice my 6-year old doing the same. It can be infuriating, but I can’t fault him too much. He comes by it honestly.

    And just last night I set dinner on the table, called everyone, and it was just me and my husband. “I reading” yelled the high pitched, two year old voice of our daughter. What a tough problem to have, right?

    All that to say, I was incredibly moved just today reading The Velveteen Rabbit with my sick son. The talk that the Rabbit has with the Skin Horse is a beautiful picture of that change that takes place in our souls over time- how we become Real through love. A very Potter-ish notion, really. I am constantly learning and relearning truths from the Potter-verse, and often find myself using Harry’s world as an example for something that I am learning: “oh, this is like when Harry….” It happens at least two times a week, usually at Church (take that, Laura Mallory)

    I know that’s not a very specific answer, but I will gladly chime in on the discussion as it unfolds. In terms of adding to the list, I would have to go with Travis’s claim in HP and Imagination that reading cultivates the imagination, and imagination is how we can transcend and understand who we are meant to be. (Someone can correct me. That was my main takeaway but I haven’t read it in awhile) Which could be interpreted as #1 in general enrichment, but I think it’s worth it’s own mention. The imagination is a dangerous, powerful, and beautiful thing, and reading is the key to unlock that mystery.

  2. PotterMom05 said, “And just last night I set dinner on the table, called everyone, and it was just me and my husband. “I reading” yelled the high pitched, two year old voice of our daughter. What a tough problem to have, right?”

    It’s a horrible problem to have! ;) I too remember spending, well, spending most of my life putting off things like dinner and bedtime because I was reading. While my mom could keep it somewhat in check when I lived at home, now only encroaching age stops me from staying up till all hours of the night reading since I can’t keep awake as long as I used to. I can’t even rely on my wife to restrain my reading habits as she does the exact same thing. She’s even worse than me about staying up too late to read. :)

    As a corollary to this discussion, I had meant to post something about this article a while back but never got to it. It’s basically about how to read more, i.e. always have a book with you. Which seems like a pretty obvious thing but probably goes unnoticed a lot of the time. But it’s also been my habit from early youth to always have something to read with me. I’d say close to 100% of the time I’ve always had something to read handy. And now with a Kindle and a Kindle Fire & a Droid phone, it’s ever present.

    Another thing that is similar to what some of Professor Cracroft says, is this “…that books can help improve you in every aspect of your life by allowing you to learn from the mistakes of others without having to make them yourself.”

    Oh, and although I already said this privately, Jenna, this is a really brilliant post and summation of Prof. Cracroft’s points. I’ll have to take some time to respond to this all.

  3. Thanks for this great post, Jenna, and to you and revgeorgefor drawing our attention to this article!

    I think that Prof. Cracroft’s list of the benefits of reading is a good one, but there is at least one more that I think his list dances around, but does not quite draw out (and this may be because he had what to my ears sounds like a charmed childhood). What I’d add is that books can give us friends and exemplars of friends to find in our lives when we don’t seem to feel we have any–the “you’re not alone and keep your eye out for the good ones” kind of reason.

    I don’t mean to sound like Luna, who makes Harry feel a bit badly when she says that being in the DA is kind of like having friends (which she clearly hasn’t had). However, having moved around a lot and been an alienated, shy oddball as a kid, I yearned to find people–even just a very few in all my life–who I could be friends with. How very much I would have liked to befriend people like Meg and Calvin (from A Wrinkle in Time), and Trixie Belden, and Jo March, and Sherlock Holmes, and Pippi Longstocking. A motley assortment, yes, but they were my “friends” and helped me get through some very bad times as a child and to aspire to find the right people to be friends with.

    Discovering the magical Library in elementary school was one of the most transformative moments in my early life. It was a gift of intellectual and emotional riches beyond words, offering me an avenue into a new universe of possibilities, a place where I could imagine roaming the now wide and wonderful world with my new-made friends.

    This is where this “blessing of reading” connects deeply with Harry Potter for me. Though we don’t see Harry as a reader, he is a decent and good-hearted boy who at last makes friends for life with “the right sort.” I cheered out loud, in fact, when he refused to shake Draco’s hand! The model of the Trio of Friends is a centerpiece of the saga and something special for a lonely kid to feel connected to.

  4. Yes, Carrie-Ann, I agree with you. I learned as a child that I was to treat books carefully because “books are our friends.” But what I discovered with delight was that the people in books were my friends. And they could always be counted on to be the same comfortable companions I’d loved during the first read.

    I loved the Trixie Belden books and they felt like the family I didn’t have. I would have experienced the same feelings about the Cullens in the Twilight books (without the icky diet part, of course!), the Weasleys, and the Trio. I would often (and still do) choose to reread a book simply to spend time with beloved characters or be in their world.

    With books I can go anywhere and anywhen in the world or beyond it, unlimited by my own imagination. That’s actually a bit weak, because good stories set my imagination afire.

    I liked: “Somewhere, they had learned that literature—and its fair handmaidens, art and music—provides various but satisfying pathways to the discovery of oneself; that study of the best literature (the belles lettres) and the best of music and art allows access to significant human experience and thus can dramatically increase one’s awareness not only of the distinctively human but also the distinctively godlike potential in all of us.”

    We need to understand both our frailty and the awesome potential and “godlike” power we have in our own and others’ lives. The literary playpen helps us safely discover and navigate our interior and exterior world, and the best books both spiritually feed us and make us hungrier.

  5. As far as what the books have taught me, they definetely helped me embrace a love of fantasy literature. I know I’ve gotten so much out of them that’s hard for me to recall or put into words. They’ve definetely shown me knew ways to think about racism, love, friendship, and the choices we make. It’s very easy to write about love being the power that it is and sound corny, superficial or trite, but Rowling avoids it.
    They keep me asking questions about myself that I’m not sure how to answer, such as “which Hogwarts House would I truly end up in?” and “What would I see if I looked in the Mirror of Erised?” When I ponder questions like that, I wonder “wow, how well do I really know myself after all? and how much less do I know and understand about the world?”
    The books have also reminded me that we all have such an extrordianary capacity for good and evil. Otherwise good characters do some awful things and make horrible mistakes, and characters that are extremely unlikley, or downright awful have moments in which the demonstrate extrodinary moral courage.
    In a similar vein, I remember being at a talk at Azkatraz on philosophy and therories of morality and moral reasoning. In discussing some of the more questionable actions and choices, I realized that I’m a bit more ‘ends justify the means’ than I’d orginally thought or wanted to believe, largely because I’d argued that some of the less scrupulous actions of the trio were forgivable because their actions and goals were overwhelmingly self-sacrificing. The books definetely provide me with no end of questions to think about.

    Like cbiondi I also always experienced books as my friends. There were periods of my childhood and adolescence that were extremely difficult, and literture always gave me comfort, partly in reading about characters I identified overcoming their own trials. I first read the Chronicles of Narnia in late elementary school, and have regularly gone back to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and recently The Horse and His Boy as a book to read when I’m in need of escape and comfort. When experiencing alienation and cruelty from my own peer group, it was comfortable to read about the heroines of “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood, or “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb. I still pull out “The Romance Reader” by Pearl Abraham and “Ordinary People” to revisit the stories and the characters (if y’all can’t tell, I got too lazy to do the html stuff). “Mists of Avalon” was the first book I remember bawling over.
    Even now, when I’m lucky enough to be around loved ones and good relationships, I still feel like the characters of Austen novels, of Harry Potter, Narnia, Panem, and Sunnydale (oops, that’s not a book) are friends that I’ll want to visit with again and again.

  6. divaalix said, “…Sunnydale (oops, that’s not a book)…”

    Well, it’s probably fair to say that the best TV shows are the ones that are most like books. :)

  7. Jenna, thank you so much for this article. As I neared the end, I had tears pouring down my face. It touched me in a deep place where my lifelong love of books has meant so much to me.

    I didn’t have the parents that Professor Cracroft had, although I’ve done a pretty good job with my own children to be like them regarding reading. (I could relate to PotterMom05 and the rest of you.)

    I connect very much to you, cbiondi, in that books and their characters were often my closest friends as a child. I’ve heard in numerous places that a child who doesn’t have loving parents but finds their way in life often had just one adult they were able to connect with in a special way, who gave them confidence. I didn’t have that adult, so I wondered how I was able to have a place within myself where I knew that I was not going to live by my parents’ messages. When I thought about it, I realized I got the knowledge that there was goodness out there that I had not yet experienced, from books. Many of the children in the books that I read did find an adult that cared about them and took time with them, even if they had to sneak away to see that person, or if that person was taken away from them. (I recently re-read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory— Great story!)

    I often say that books and the natural world raised me.
    The holy Spirit has always brought me just the book I needed and still does. Many of us speak of a “library angel” who causes just the right book to literally fall off the shelf in a book store, or a library book to fall open to just the right page that will make us realize we must read it.

    I remember J.K. Rowling saying in some interview that people tell her that they love reading but just don’t have time for it. She said something to the effect of: if you love to read, you will find time for it. You will read in the bathroom and in bed and when you are cooking and when you are drying your hair. I could so relate to that and to revgeorge’s comments above, about always having a book with me. I always have a book in my car, my purse, my arms, wherever I go. My husband asks why I bring a book along if, for instance, we are going out to dinner. Well, I read it when he goes to the bathroom, if we stop at a gas station and he gets out to pump gas. And in case we had a flat tire or anything like that, I would want to have a book along. Having to wait is never a problem, in the doctor’s office or anywhere, because it’s an excuse to read.

  8. Thanks, I do agree that reading keeps us smarter and mentally active longer and we are able to be creative. (all forms: painting, music, math)
    “The man who doesn’t read has no advantage over the man who can’t read” – Mark Twain

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