By the time you read this piece you are already on your way to self-actualization. This is not necessarily because reading creates new value in your life, but rather because reading reflects your willingness to learn from the experiences of others.
Reading is perhaps the most effective habit for learning about the world and therefore about yourself. To make it quantifiable, book authors often devoted entire months, years, and even lifetimes to writing a story. However, reading it only takes a few days or weeks. For us readers, there aren’t many other options for consuming content that offer such a high return on the time invested.
In addition, with the advent of audiobooks, books have become even more accessible as we can now simply “read” them. We can read during everyday chores in life like folding clothes, cooking, driving, the list goes on.
This enables us to digest reading material even faster. For example, through an audio book biography, we can learn in a few hours from the life of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. (Alternatively, check out Lin-Manuel Miranda’s critically acclaimed Hamilton production, but for now, I’m focusing on reading). It took Hamilton all of his life to learn the lessons that Ron Chernow’s biography about him contains. We can learn the same lessons in essentially a week of commuting.
Now that it has been determined that reading is very likely the best way to learn about the world, it is natural to ask why it is important to learn from these historical or fictional stories.
There is the obvious answer to this question: learning from such recorded or fabricated experiences can better influence our future decisions. This is because we can refer to the decisions and situations that worked or didn’t work for people in these books like Winston Churchill or Cornelius Fudge.
However, I would also like to suggest that we put more emphasis on self-reflection, which can also be encouraged by reading books. By empathizing with or relating to specific characters or situations, we can discover where our internal principles and aspirations lie. It can easily be that we agree with the message of a novel or experience internal friction with the values of its characters. Regardless, it can allow us to determine what our innate values are and how they guide us.
I vividly remember reading a fabulous novel, The Remains of the Day, and realizing that many of the protagonist’s principles are those that I hope I will continually work on, such as self-reflection, patience, and dignity. More modern I find in the protagonist of The Martian applicable virtues such as scientific problem solving and unyielding perseverance. Finding characters who reflect similar values or hold opinions that are opposite to mine drives my reading interests. When I follow an individual’s journey of self-realization, I can guide myself.
Often times, self-actualization is tossed around as an expression that lacks substance. However, we should be aware that there is more to self-actualization than just “achieving our goals”. Self-actualization critically involves “finding ourselves,” which requires us to understand how we act and what drives our thoughts and actions. So we should strive for this internalized self-awareness instead of just focusing on specific, perhaps material goals that we only believe define our identity.
Books are a great way to work towards both that confidence and self-actualization. Another often underestimated value of physically reading or listening to audiobooks is the attention that is required. Reading a novel, biography, or even an encyclopedia is a craft, much like writing these works. To really think about the lessons and messages in a book, we need to consciously focus our attention on the words on paper, or more often now on the screen.
In our current climate, social media apps benefit from distracting our attention, but targeted reading can serve as a safeguard. By consciously paying attention to a book, rather than losing control of messages or constant notifications, we can better focus our conscious attention on real relationships and work. So reading also leads to these practical benefits in perhaps more tangible ways than self-awareness as an abstract concept.
After being able to use the quarantine period to reread books I had read before, eventually read the ones I saved, and discover new gems, I grew to support the notion that ” you are what you read ”. Literally reading the intricately told stories in Being Mortal, I inspired my appreciation for the medical profession and affirmed that, unfortunately, I am mortal. Less jokingly, I read the Inkheart Trilogy, a series written for younger children, but with its strong message about the power of books, I rediscovered my own passion for reading.
So we should read on because I suppose if we don’t read anything after the above thought, then we are nothing.
You can read any designed story, be it in the form of novels, biographies, graphic novels, short stories, travel guides, memoirs – you name it. And it’s definitely okay not to finish a book or piece that you are starting. However, we should try to use this as motivation to find another book that better suits our tastes rather than being discouraged from reading it itself.
Now that books are so prevalent on myriad options, including audiobooks, we can start reading almost as easily as sending a text message. When I started rebuilding my reading habit, I just took 10-15 minutes of reading each day, and first I read the editorial columns in newspapers, not even full books.
Let’s get used to reading again, because who will write without them? And if nobody writes, who will think?
Muhammad Abidi is a sophomore studying molecular and cell biology in Onalaska, Wisconsin. His column reflects ideas about productivity and personal development in order to steer the path to self-actualization.